Developing an e-Field Notebook for Ecological Study

What You Need


  • Mobile device (iPhone, iPad, Android)
  • Digital camera
  • Video equipment (optional)
  • Rulers or other objects used for scale in photos
  • Field notebook
  • Field guides for identification
  • Safety in the classroom information related to lesson
  • Permission slips if needed by school district for field trips, etc.
Developing an e-Field Notebook for Ecological Study


To create an e-field notebook to better understand classification of species and organismal interactions at higher levels of biological organization (e.g., population, community, and ecosystem) “through scientific natural history.”


 “People have long been curious about living things—how many different species there are, what they are like, where they live, how they relate to each other, and how they behave. Scientists seek to answer these questions and many more about the organisms that inhabit the earth. In particular, they try to develop the concepts, principles, and theories that enable people to understand the living environment better.” (Science for All Americans, p. 53.)

As this quote suggests, people are often curious about organisms: where they are found and which organisms can be found living together. Field biologists often ask four basic questions about a newly discovered organism or those they are interested in studying in depth:

  • What is the organism called (common and scientific name)?
  • How is it related to other species (classification)?
  • Where does the organism live (species distribution)?
  • What other organisms are found living in the same place under similar conditions (associated species within communities/biomes)?

This lesson is designed to help high-school age students make careful observations in nature to answer these questions about plant species within their local flora. While grassland plants are the focus of this lesson, any group of organisms could be used to build an e-field notebook. Hereafter, grassland plants will be used within the lesson; however a different group of plants or other organisms can be substituted. To answer these questions for local plant species, students will learn to make detailed observations of plants to aid in their identification and classification, then electronically record these observations and add digital photos or other illustrations into an e-field notebook.  Building a collection of photos, illustrations, location data, etc., from student e-field notebooks can aid in local plant community and biome study. You also can use this archive of materials from students’ e-field notebooks over the years to produce an outstanding digital collection of plant species representative of your local flora. In addition, the archive of materials can provide a preliminary look at what future students should be expected to know and do as an introduction to this lesson.

E.O. Wilson suggests that the wellspring of an integrated biology is “scientific natural history.” Traditionally, the field notebook has been an indispensible tool for scientific naturalists over the centuries. A field notebook is a tool which can be used to collect qualitative data, quantitative data, and general information about organisms individually, within communities, and/or within biomes while in the field. In this lesson, students will develop and use an e-field notebook to take advantage of opportunities the digital world has to offer in recording observations of local plant species.

Students should be familiar with plant identification, the production of traditional field notebooks, the use of basic computer software, and digital cameras. These Science NetLinks lessons can help prepare students for this lesson:

This lesson aligns with the learning progression outlined in Benchmarks for Science Literacy, Chapter 5, Diversity of Life, which notes that upon finishing 8th grade, students should know that: "Animals and plants have a great variety of body plans and internal structures that contribute to their being able to make or find food and reproduce"; and, "Similarities among organisms are found in internal anatomical features, which can be used to infer the degree of relatedness among organisms. In classifying organisms, biologists consider details of internal and external structures to be more important than behavior or general appearance."

Planning Ahead

In this lesson, your students will develop an e-field notebook to store digital photos of identified specimens as would be done in a traditional field notebook. Data collected for each species in the e-field notebook will be used to build electronic species profiles. The species e-profiles can be used as a generalized data collection resource for development of other e-tools.

This lesson is designed using grassland plants as a focus group. The skills your students will learn, however, can apply to any group of organisms. In planning this lesson, consider several things when choosing a group of organisms as the focus for your classroom.

  • Your expertise: If you are building e-field notebooks for the first time with your students, you might want to start with organisms with which you are most familiar. If you know your local trees best, then start your class with trees as a focus. Over the years, you might want to include other plants you are less familiar with to increase your expertise. While this lesson is designed with wild plants in mind, domesticated plants (garden, ornamental, crops, etc.) could be used too.
  • Something new: If you are more daring and want to start with a group of organisms you know little about, consider contacting a local expert (i.e., local native plant club or society, horticulturist, landscaper, county forester, agriculture specialist, university botanist). These local experts also could probably recommend additional resources specific to your area (i.e., field guides, plant identification apps, and herbarium webpages for your local flora).
  • Taxonomic level: Consider making e-field notebook pages using higher taxonomic levels (genus, family, etc.). Many plant taxonomists focus on characteristics at the family level. Your students could produce notebooks for a collection of different plant families (i.e., rose, legume, grass, etc.). This would be a good opportunity to focus on similarities and differences of plant structure (roots, stems, leaves, flowers, cones, etc.) among taxonomic groups.
  • Community level: Instead of using a taxonomic approach, consider making e-field notebook pages for different plant communities (grassland, forest, wetland, etc.). Focus on local plants found growing in different communities. Your students could produce notebooks for a collection of species in different plant families (i.e., rose, legume, grass, etc.), which grow together in a similar plant community.
  • Seasons: Consider making e-field notebook pages during different times of year. Some plants germinate, emerge from the ground, flower and fruit early in the growing season (spring) while other species grow and bloom later (fall).

Safety in the Field:

  • Take time to point out hazardous plants or animals (poisonous plants; poisonous, biting, stinging animals; poisonous mushrooms; etc.). Explicit instruction on what to watch out for could be incorporated into a sample page of a notebook where students are guided to identify, sketch, and ask questions about a hazardous species. The element of danger could help hold students’ attention.
  • Be aware of student allergies to specific plants, pollen, or bee stings. Bring appropriate medical materials if necessary. In general, bringing a first-aid kit when working in the field is a good rule of thumb.
  • Any student with a known bee sting allergy should carry an Epipen when they go out in the field.
  • You could bring along gloves for students to wear when handling potentially harmful plants.


This lesson scaffolds upon students’ prior experiences of learning about the internal and external structures of organisms generally taught in middle school.

To get started, provide your students with a plant example using the Flora of North America (FNA). While not yet completed, the FNA online is a free, comprehensive, authoritative resource that will eventually include information on the approximately 20,000 plant species in the contiguous 48 United States, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.

Choose a plant species that is common in your area and with which your students would probably be familiar. Ask your students these four questions regarding the species you have chosen:

  • What is this plant called (common and scientific name)?
  • Based on the scientific name, what other local plant species would be closely related (classification)?
  • Where does this plant grow in your county/state/country/world (species distribution or the location of where a plant species grows)?
  • What other plants (and animals) are found living in the same place under similar conditions as this plant species (habitat/associated species within communities)?

Consult the Plant Example teacher sheet for an example of the information you should look for as a class.

This exercise provides you an opportunity to begin a conversation with your students to see if they know the difference between common versus scientific names, understand how to read species distribution maps, and to assess their understanding of some basic ecological concepts. Ask your students:

  • Do you know the concepts: species, species distribution, plant community, ecological landscape, biomes?
  • In what kind of plant community, ecological landscape, and biome would this species be typically found?

This engagement activity is a springboard for the exploration of answering these basic questions about a new species your students are not familiar with.


Begin this section by reviewing with students some traditional field notebooks used by scientists. You could use some examples of field notebooks that would be of interest to your students. For example, find several pages from Darwin’s notebooks, or historical notebooks of scientists from your local area. Consider using the field notebooks of early scientists like Increase Lapham or Aldo Leopold. Students also could use their e-Field Notebook student esheet to read these resources:

Ask your students: What are the tools used by these scientists to observe and record species observations?

Next, students should explore an electronic version or e-field notebook, which could be used to record observations from the field. One example is the Bowie and Zoey’s Fantastic, Fun-filled Field Journal. Students should use their esheet to view this resource. Even though this journal looks like it is meant for younger students, it should still give your students an idea of how to do an online field notebook. Ask students these questions once they’ve had a chance to go through this journal: 

  • How is the information organized in this journal?
    • (The information is organized by the time of day when the turtles were visited at the zoo. There are photographs and text descriptions of what was seen.)
  • Are there any dates provided? Is this a good thing? Why or why not?
    • (There are no dates provided. This is not a good thing because it is important to record the dates of the observations to keep an accurate record of the research.)
  • Are there any times recorded? Is this a good thing? Why or why not?
    • (There are some times provided. This is a good thing because it provides some insight into what the animals might be doing at certain times of the day.)
  • What type of information is provided?
    • (Information about what the baby tortoises do during the day, what they eat, how they play, etc. There is also background information about this type of tortoise.)
  • Are there any pictures? What kind? Are they hand-drawn or photographs?
    • (There are photographs and video. The video can be a good way to show how this animal moves and some of its behaviors.)
  • How is this journal like one that you would do for field research? How is it different?
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

Once you have discussed these questions with your students, they should use their esheet to view the e-Field Notebook slide show to learn about what types of information should be in their own electronic field notebook. Once they’ve had a chance to go through this slide show, ask students:

  • What kind of information do you need to gather and record for your e-field notebook?
    • (Students should be sure to have this information: photo of entire plant, photos that show vegetative and floral characteristics, common name, family, scientific name, county/state, latitude/longitude, location description, date, name of collector, description of plant, and additional notes.)
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of using these electronic tools to record observations versus traditional methods used in the field?
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)
  • Would a hybrid model of using both traditional and electronic methods be an advantage when recording observations in the field?
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

For this lesson, students should use Active Explorer, an application that combines the mobility of a smartphone with the abilities of a computer to allow students to collect images, video, audio, notes, and other data and then go online to see what they’ve collected, study it, and use it to make an electronic notebook.

With Active Explorer, you should first set up a “Quest” for your students, which can be as simple or complex as you like. The Quest is like a treasure hunt for data. For this lesson, you would want to ask your students to look for samples of plants, photograph them, and then add them to an online book that they can use as a field notebook.

To set up a Quest, you should go to the Leaders section and simply click on “Create a New Quest.” The Create a New Quest page provides you with step-by-step directions for setting up a Quest. Once you create your Quest, you can share it with your students.

Using a digital format as suggested in this lesson plan provides your students with unique opportunities not available with traditional ways of recording field notes. Note: An e-field notebook does not replace traditional methods of recording scientific field observations but instead enhances them.

Next, hand out the Data Sheet to Accompany Digital Photos student sheet to remind students what information they should record in the e-field notebook. Then, take your students outside and demonstrate using an iPad or iPhone with Active Explorer to record species observations. (Students will need to create accounts, sign in, and add the quest in a place where their devices receive a data signal. If that is not outside the classroom, consider completing these steps before leaving the building.) Let them explore using the mobile devices to digitally capture local plant species. Back in the classroom, review the photos that have been taken to assess their value for species identification. Discuss the kinds of images they need to capture for species identification. Ask them:

  • What should you record in your plant photos, data collection, etc.?
    • (The best photo will include as many plant structures and characteristics needed to identify the species; often multiple photos will be needed to include all of these characteristics. In addition, any data that is collected [measurements, colors of plant parts, dissections of reproductive structures] should be recorded in the e-field notebook to accompany the photo(s). Botanical illustrations that are drawn by hand could be included. Any student-produced drawings or illustrations can be scanned and added electronically on a species e-page. Or, students can use the “Draw” tool in the Active Explorer app.)
  • How can this be loaded into a species sheet in the e-field notebook?
    • (With Active Explorer, all students have to do is snap a picture, take a video, record some audio, or even draw a picture of the plant using their mobile device. These items will get saved to a “backpack” in Active Explorer and when students are ready, they can upload them to the website, where students can make their e-field notebook.)
  • What questions do you have related to your study species or with this exercise?
    • (Answers may vary depending on species.)

Initially, each student should focus on a specific plant species. It could be a plant that really interests them, one they have questions about, or one that they just find to be very beautiful. Define a target number of species for each student to work with as they build their own collection of species e-profiles. Again, what questions do your students have related to their collection of study species?

Building a Class Species Collection: After the e-field notebooks are completed, students should reevaluate their species related questions while in the field (can be used for assessment items also). They should consider these questions: Were their questions answered? Did their own observations help answer the questions they had about their species of study?

Classification & Ecology: Once students are comfortable making and recording their observations electronically, species data sheets can be organized into collections based on classification (relatedness, e.g., plant families) or ecological interactions (plant community or biome). Students can refer to Plant Community Type and Biome Type student sheets to see how these are done.


Formative Assessment Suggestions
Check student progress while they are out making field drawings, taking photos, collecting data, and recording observations.

Check student abilities to: (1) use a dichotomous key and or field guide for plant identification, (2) dissect and photograph the plant to get a better idea of how the reproductive parts are arranged for plant identification, and (3) look up the species in a field guide to obtain more information.

Summative Assessment Suggestions
Give students a unit exam with these questions:

  • What are the benefits of keeping a field notebook?
  • Identify two species of plants that you did not encounter in the field by using a dichotomous key or field guide. You can use your field notebooks to help with the identification.
  • Dissect two plants that you did not encounter in the field and (1) accurately describe the reproductive organs of a flowering and a non-flowering plant and (2) describe leaf shape, margins, venation, and other structural features. You can use your field notebooks to help with the dissection.
  • What are the pros/cons of e-field vs. traditional field notebooks?


Having your students produce e-field notebooks can be the corner-stone for the development of other “tools,” both electronic and physical, to study plants in your classroom.

e-herbarium: Herbaria across the USA have digitized plant specimen sheets so that preserved plant material can be viewed online. Specific data must be recorded when collecting a plant specimen. Since the plant specimens for their e-field notebooks are digital, collect this information when taking pictures for specific species. This data can be used to produce an electronic label for specimens in your e-herbarium. Organize species e-sheets by plant family as is done in an herbarium.

e-transect: Traditionally, botanists have used transects to determine what kinds and densities of plants grow together. Both qualitative (e.g., species list) and quantitative (e.g., biomass of different species) data can be collected using transects. When multiple transects are used within a plant community, a botanist can characterize a habitat by determining which species are found growing in association with one another (associated species) on a small scale. At a larger scale, ecological landscapes and biomes are often characterized by the common dominant plant species, which grow under relatively similar conditions.

Students could learn to make a simple transect to determine what organisms are found living together and then record these associated species by producing a video transect. They could produce an e-transect for recording species associations (community – biome level). Quammen 2000, 2001a, 2001b provide examples of transects on a large scale. The Mini-Transect Across the Western USA on I-80 video provides an example of how a larger transect could be produced for the classroom.

Going beyond plants: While this lesson emphasizes plants as subjects for your students’ e-field notebooks, there are a wide variety of groups of organisms which could serve as a focus for study. To provide additional organismal groups for exploration, a general book (e.g., Smithsonian’s Natural History) that provides many varied examples of organisms might lead to a better understanding of biological communities and biomes.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards