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Developing Personal Connections to Nature through Plant Drawings, Scientific Observations, Sense Surveys and Journal Writings

By Howard A. Knodle

Type of Entry:

  • Project

Type of Activity:

  • hands-on
  • inquiry-based
  • cooperative group
  • off-site
  • alternative assessment
  • constructivist learning

Target Audience:

  • Students enrolled in environmental studies courses as well as in any science course which uses the natural environment as a basis for learning. Students of all skill levels and abilities can participate and develop skills necessary for success. These activities can be modified for any grade level and student abilities.

Notes to Teacher:

These activities are most effective when conducted in a natural setting. Practice can take place in any setting to acquaint students with the techniques and purposes of each activity. Students are more willing to share their personal feelings from sense surveys and journals with others in situations where they feel safe. Creating an atmosphere of mutual respect among students is essential to the success of sharing sense survey observations and journal writings. Some students may be uncomfortable and unwilling to share their feelings with other students. Reassuring students that you respect their privacy and that their entries will only be shared with others upon their consent will encourage them to be open and honest in their entries. It may take some students longer than others to discover their ability to express themselves. Practice, encouragement and guidance is essential to the success of these activities.

Required of students:

  • A willingness to try new activities and to express themselves and their feelings orally and in written form.

  • The desire to spend time out of the classroom in natural settings.

  • A clipboard and paper or spiral notebook to record entries and a pencil.

Preparation time needed:

Planning off-site field trips will require additional time to complete necessary forms and to arrange transportation.

Additional time is needed to prepare student materials and guidelines to help focus and direct the collection of scientific observations, plant drawings, sense surveys and journal entries.

Class time needed:

Two to three hours of class time should be sufficient to prepare students to draw plants. One class period can be used for groups of students to brainstorm what plant characteristics to focus on when drawing, followed by a teacher led class discussion to share the brainstorm ideas, develop a list of key characteristics and to discuss drawing guidelines. One to two class periods can be devoted to practice drawing sample specimens.

One class period to discuss what an observation is and how to make good scientific observations followed by a practice exercise. One class period to discuss sense surveys and journal writings followed by guided practice. The discussion may include class brainstorms identifying potential journal entry topics as well as types of sensory information that may be collected in a natural setting.


  • These activities encourage students to develop personal connections to nature. They provide unique learning experiences which promote learning and encourage students to develop connections to the environment beyond scientific principles.


The four activities described encourage students to develop personal connections to nature. Each of these activities has been used successfully during field trips lasting from one hour to four days. The purpose of these activities is to encourage students to: 1] identify scientific (ecological) observations about specific habitats/ecosystems; 2] focus on the details of nature and the power of being a good observer (scientist); 3] gather information using four of their five senses (taste excluded); and 4] express themselves creatively and create a permanent record of their activities, feelings and experiences. It is the combination of these activities which has helped to develop more environmentally literate individuals who are inquisitive, enthusiastic and genuinely concerned for the environment.


Activities Overview:

These activities were developed as part of a four day field trip. Students work in 4 person crews throughout the field trip. Five half day activities include:

  1. a plant walk to observe and draw local flora;

  2. aquatic stream sampling (biological, physical, and chemical analysis of a stream);

  3. forest ecosystem comparison;

  4. ecosystem diversity and succession evaluation;

  5. photodocumentation. The final activity of the trip is a plant identification test.

Activity 1: Plant Drawings

During the field trip, students draw plants during each half day activity. Instructors continually point out important plants and quiz students on key characteristics. Students work in groups during free time learning to identify plants they encountered during the activities.


To encourage students to develop keen observation skills. To enable students to develop and use artistic skills in science learning.

Plant Drawing Guidelines:

  • draw in detail one or two leaves including leaf shape, margin, tip, base and venation pattern, and show the attachment to the stem

  • identify plant by scientific and common name

  • describe the location of the plant (wet, dry intermediate, disturbed area, slope, light conditions, aspect, etc.)

  • describe the habit of the plant (vine, shrub, tree, forb, etc.)

  • identify unique characteristics to help remember each plant (smell, color, fruit, etc.)


    Students are required to draw a minimum of 25 plants. Upon returning from the field trip, the drawings are collected and evaluated based on their neatness, accuracy and details.

    Portfolio assessment is used for the class. Portfolios are evaluated at the end of each semester. Students must place a specific number of scientific drawings into the portfolio for evaluation. Evaluation is done using a rubric.

    Additional ideas:

    Have students use prepared herbarium specimens to begin learning and drawing key plants in class prior to the field trip. Drawings can be made of many features of the environment including terrestrial invertebrates, aquatic invertebrates, tracks, birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, protists, land forms, etc.

    Activity 2: Scientific Observations


    To help students interact with the environment and focus on the details of nature.

    To encourage students to be inquisitive and formulate questions which will enable them to better understand ecosystems.

    Activity description:

    Students are given 10 - 15 minutes to record scientific observations of an ecosystem. The ecosystems visited during the half day activities include a red pine forest plantation, a northern hardwoods forest stand, a peat bog, and a stream.

    One half hour group discussions take place with an instructor immediately following the observation period to identify and discuss the scientific observations made by students. Discussions focus on similarities and differences between ecosystems and ecosystem structure and function as it relates to ecology. Students are encouraged to ask and answer questions which were formulated while recording observations.


    • focus on scientific characteristics of the site (biological, physical and chemical)

    • identify characteristics such as: topography, moisture, disturbed vs. undisturbed, forest floor, plant diversity, key biotic and abiotic factors which influence the site, succession, etc.

    • describe how energy is distributed within the site

    • identify historical and/or human influences on the site (fire, logging, road building, etc.)

    • identify evidence of wildlife: sightings, tracks, browse, scat, dens/nests, etc.


    Students record entries related to the day's activities in their journals. A specific number of observations must be included in the student's portfolio. Scientific observations are evaluated using a rubric after the field trip.

    Additional ideas:

    This activity can serve as an inquiry based activity which introduces students to ecosystems, as an authentic learning activity during an ecology unit or as a culminating activity after an ecology unit.

    Activity 3: Sense Surveys


    To encourage students to develop personal connections to nature. To encourage students to focus on themselves and nature, rather than on scientific concepts.

    Activity description:

    Students are given 10 - 15 minutes in an ecosystem to record sensory observations. One half hour group discussions take place with an instructor immediately following the sense survey to identify and discuss the observations. This activity is very powerful in activating student response and interest.


    • focus on smell, sight, sound, and touch (taste only when directed by a teacher)

    • Be quiet! The focus should be on the natural environment, not on others

    • gather information from different positions (standing, sitting, laying down, near, far)

    • describe how you connect to the area (relate any previous experiences)

    • identify and describe emotional feelings (joy, fear, awe, gloom, happy, peace, etc.)

    • identify the single most unique feature of the experience. The removal of this feature would change your experience (cold, smell of wildflowers, clouds, color, sound of creek, quietness, etc.). Describe why you picked this feature


    Sense surveys are graded using a rubric. A specific number of sense surveys must be included in the students portfolio.

    Additional ideas:

    Sense surveys can be conducted in any setting, including urban areas. These surveys boldly illustrate differences in sensory perceptions and emotions between remote natural areas and urban settings.

    Activity 4: Journal Writings


    • To encourage students to express themselves creatively.

    • To give students an opportunity to create a permanent record of their activities, feelings and experiences.

    • To encourage students to identify personal connections to nature.


    Students are given journal assignments to complete during field trips and on a regular basis throughout the year. Types of entries include but are not limited to:

    • personal impressions of activities

    • self evaluations

    • quote, poem, pictorial interpretations

    • current issue evaluations and responses

    • completion of "Thinking Logs" (e.g. What I will remember most about today is....., The most interesting thing I learned today was...., I still do not understand....)


    Journals are graded using a rubric and many are included in the student's portfolio.

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