Using Field Notebooks for Biodiversity Study

What You Need


  • Pencils
  • Hand lenses (10 or 12x)
  • Rulers
  • Field notebooks
  • Permission slips if needed by school district for field trips, etc.
Using Field Notebooks for Biodiversity Study Photo Credit: Clipart.com


To create field notebooks where students record observations, produce drawings/illustrations, determine relatedness among species (classification), and develop questions about the plants and ecosystems they encounter in an outdoor field study.


“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.)

A field notebook is a tool used to collect qualitative data, quantitative data, and general information about organisms individually, within communities, and/or within biomes during an outing. Organisms of interest within communities or biomes can be identified, categorized, sketched, measured, or written about in a notebook of observations. Later, students can return to their field notebooks to reflect on their notes, drawings, and questions—and investigate them further. In essence, your students will be natural journaling, which is an essential part of scientific natural history.

Field notebooks expose your budding scientists (the future generations of ecologists) to the larger skill of assessing “…the conservation status of the species that compose an ecosystem” as Stuart, et al. (2010) have noted. These are the beginning steps which need to be taken in biology courses so that students better understand the health of their local ecosystems. “It is time to accelerate taxonomy and scientific natural history, two of the most vital but neglected disciplines of biology.” (Stuart, et al. 2010.) This lesson is designed to help high-school age students make careful observations of nature and to organize their observations in a field notebook. The curiosities that students have while collecting field notes can be recorded and better understood through further investigation of questions they generate.

Students will learn to create field notebooks using templates (see the student sheets as field notebook page examples) to identify and classify plant species, make quantitative measurements related to the plants, and note their own questions about: specific plant species, specific plant families, biome types (ecology) and/or plant community types (ecology).

This lesson aligns with the learning progression outlined in Benchmarks for Science Literacy, Chapter 5, Diversity of Life, which notes that upon finishing eighth grade, students will have some understanding of the varieties of plant structures and their roles (5A/M2), the similarities of anatomical features that can be used to infer the degree of relatedness of organisms (5A/M3a), and how internal and external structures can be used for classifying organisms (5A/M3b).

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Planning Ahead

Plant Identification: One of the first questions people ask when encountering an unknown plant is: What is the name of that plant? Knowing the common or scientific names of plants around your school, in your area, or at field trip sites greatly improves your ability to help your students build a high-quality field notebook. However, if you are not familiar with your local flora, there are many people who can help. You may be able to find a plant biologist at a local college or university (check to see if there is an herbarium), your state department of natural resources, county parks and recreation agencies, state or county agriculture centers, local non-governmental organizations (e.g., Prairie Enthusiasts, The Nature Conservancy), or a local botany club. Written plant descriptions are an effective way of incorporating a writing component into a field notebook entry. In addition, a good grade-level book on plant ecology aids in making and recording interesting ecological information about plants and how they interact with other organisms (see the Suggested Resources teacher sheet for an example).

Have students look up pictures and descriptions of the plants they are likely to encounter before going into the field.

If you or your students have mobile devices, consider using these digital guides and information sites:

Students should be familiar with plant identification, classification, etc. (see these related 6-8 and 9-12 Science NetLinks lessons):

Plant Illustration: 

Knowing some basic drawing/illustration skills greatly enhances your ability to help your students improve their observational skills (an important skill to develop for both biologists and artists alike). However, if you are not familiar with botanical illustration, there are many people who can help. Local artist groups and your school art teachers can help you with basic drawing skills and media. Our suggestion is to keep it simple. Pencil and paper in a bound notebook will suffice. One important thing to keep in mind is scale. Botanical illustration is about drawing for accuracy. So usually a drawn scale (a one cm line for example) is good to include with your drawings.

Safety in the Field:  

  1. Take time to point out hazardous plants or animals (poisonous plants; poisonous, biting, or 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Any student with a known bee sting allergy should carry an Epipen when they go out in the field.
  4. 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 grades 6-8 (see Diversity of Life). Students should be able to recognize the differences among plants and have an understanding of the vocabulary used for classification.

Try to find an example of a field notebook that would be of interest to your students (see examples at links below). 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; see also Ch. 1 in Canfield (2011).

Using the example notebook pages, ask students to make a list of what organismal, community, or biome features should be included when making a field notebook. Use a Write, Pair, Share model to have students write their ideas individually, and then combine ideas with a partner, and share ideas with the entire class.

Help students organize their lists into a template for field notebooks using their ideas. If there are items that were not generated by students that you deem important for field notebooks, find examples of the important features from your sample notebooks and try to convince the students which features are important. This lesson can be appealing to students who like to draw and be outside. An opportunity to do science outside the classroom walls can be a most welcoming activity for anyone.

Try making links to other disciplines like art (materials and techniques used for rendering accurate illustrations of flora and fauna in pencil, pen, charcoal, etc.), history (early historical scientist notebooks), and math (scale in illustration). For an example of how plant patterns are deeply connected with math, see Vi Hart’s YouTube series: Doodling in Math.


Day 1 Engagement Exercise

Place a potted plant at the front of the classroom (as an alternative, this could be done with plants outside). Each student should spend 5-10 minutes writing down everything they notice concerning the plant and its environment (i.e., the classroom/outside). Since “[e]merging research suggests drawing should be explicitly recognized as a key element in science education” (Ainsworth, et al, 2011), encourage them to include simple drawings if they choose. The students should work independently and quietly. Next, have students compare their observations and drawings. They should think about the basic structure of plant parts. This could include the shape of the leaf, the lifespan, flower color, etc. Most students will focus on the plant itself, but some will notice environmental conditions like the wetness of the soil, while others might notice room “weather” conditions, etc. Finally, talk about how the different observations might influence scientific interpretation of environmental data. This engagement activity illustrates the complexities of creating a field notebook.

Day 2 Creating Field Notebooks

Building on student observations from the previous day, have a class discussion of the goals and methods that will be used to create the field notebooks for recording observations in the coming days. This discussion could include both what can be recorded and also the structure of the field notebook itself. For example, you could ask students questions such as:

  • How much information should you include in your notebook?
  • Should you include, at a minimum, a subset of common observations?
  • What medium (pen, pencil, permanent marker, etc.) will be used for recording observations?
  • How will you handle corrections or changes? This is particularly important because pencil marks can be erased. How does that affect the validity of the data?
  • Do you want to leave blank pages at the front to build a table of contents?
  • Should the pages be numbered?

(Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

End the day by handing out the student sheets so that they know what is expected in developing their field notebook pages. The Value of a Good Field Notebook may provide some help with this discussion.

* Note:  Field notebooks can be either purchased for use by students or created by them. If students purchase a field notebook, they should consider getting a bound notebook with either lined (more emphasis on writing) or blank pages (more emphasis on drawing). Bound (composition) notebooks are relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, pages in spiral-bound notebooks often get torn out and lost. They are not as durable as a bound notebook, especially if used outside. Encourage students to use the student sheets as guides for entering information into a bound field notebook. Alternatively, a field notebook could be made by photocopying the student sheets. Students could staple front and back cover sheets with the photocopied student sheets of their choice inside and use this as a student field notebook. These may not be as durable as a bound notebook. However, they would probably be even more inexpensive.

Day 3–4

Bring specimens to the classroom or take students into the field to obtain different plant species and bring them back to the classroom. Students should be familiar with plant identification and classification to do this part of the lesson. To help them with plant identification, students can make use of the resources mentioned in Planning Ahead. If students don’t have access to these electronic resources, however, they could use the Plant Species student sheet to help them identify the species. They can use the Field Notebook student esheet to go through a slide show that reviews the various parts of the plant they will need to identify. You could begin by helping them through this first notebook page layout by reviewing with them the meanings of the terms and what they should look for.

Day 5 and Beyond

Now that students are familiar with a set of plants, continue with the other templates found on the rest of the student sheets. How are their plants related? (Plant Family Name student sheet) How are plants organized into communities? (Plant Community Type student sheet) What role do plants play within biomes? (Biome Type student sheet) Go over the student sheets and have students answer their own questions. Are there any interesting questions that require further drawings, illustrations, or observations? Is there any potential follow up which could be used in a class project?

Optional follow up to previous days: Review with students to the Linnaean classification system using the most general taxonomic categories: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. Use species they have found and recorded in their field notebooks for plants to classify. The students should try to identify features of the flowering plants, cone-bearing plants, seedless, vascular plants, and non-vascular plants which place them into the taxonomic categories above.


Formative Assessment Suggestions

You should check student progress while they are out making their field drawings and taking notes. You also should gauge student abilities to (1) use a dichotomous key and or field guide for plant identification, (2) dissect the plant to get a better idea of how the reproductive parts are arranged, and (3) look up the species in a field guide to obtain more information. 

Summative Assessment Suggestions

In addition to the formative assessment, you could do a summative assessment where you ask students to tell you:

  1. What are the benefits of keeping a field notebook?
  2. Identify two species of plants that they did not encounter in the field by using a dichotomous key or field guide. Allow them to use their field notebooks to help with the identification.
  3. Dissect two plants that they 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. Allow them to use their field notebooks to help with the dissection.


Have students create an e-field notebook—share photos, videos, and field notes online in a blog or wiki format. Digital photos, videos, etc. could be used to develop a “digital herbarium.” This digital herbarium could be used as an archive for student work from the past and also a preliminary look at what current students will see in the field during this lesson. Be careful, however, not to reveal all of the plants they will see in the field. Use this as a chance to increase student interest. The digital herbarium also could be used as a tool to teach plant identification and classification.

Follow up on questions noted in field notebooks. Explore the questions: “What makes a good question in science? How can we begin to answer them?”

After the field notebooks are completed, have the students reevaluate the questions that they came up with while in the field. Did any of their questions get answered? If yes, what questions were they, and what did they find? If no, they should do further research to answer their questions. Each student should focus on a specific plant species for this part. It could be a plant that really interests them, one they had a lot of further questions about, or one that they just find to be very beautiful. Once they have done all their research, they should think of a creative way to present their information. Give examples, such as: sculptures, photography, play-writing, or a fake episode from their favorite TV show. Poisonous plants provide a student with the perfect opportunity to develop a detective TV show episode where a victim survives consuming a poisonous plant, but they think someone is trying to kill them. With these projects it is important that along with their presentations they discuss everything that they learned about the plant. The point of these follow-up projects is for your students to reflect on their drawings, notes, and questions that they accumulated in their field notebooks.

Going beyond plants: While this lesson emphasizes plants as subjects for your students’ field notebook, there are a wide variety of groups of organisms which could serve as a focus for study. To provide additional groups for exploration, a general book which provides many varied examples of organisms might lead to interest in outdoor exploration. One good example is Smithsonian’s Natural History book.

Building equipment for natural history exploration: A wide variety of do-it-yourself (DIY) built equipment can improve student observations of flora and fauna, which can then be recorded in their field notebooks. An excellent book (The Amateur Naturalist) provides instructions/directions for building these low-cost pieces of equipment.

Students also could consider the pros/cons of digital field notebooks vs. hand-drawn ones. For example, the former can provide faster identification while the attention needed for the latter improves what actually gets observed.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards