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Scientific Investigation Notebooks: A Guideline for Student-Led Discovery

Scientific investigation is the process of finding an answer to a question by using multiple research methods. Students must formulate their own questions through their observations of the world around them and discover a system for gathering and analyzing data and reaching a conclusion.

For many students, this process can feel daunting. Most classroom learning is teacher-led, presenting questions with known answers which emphasizes correctness. Students may be uncomfortable creating their own questions and discovering answers that are not predetermined.

This is where scientific investigation notebooks are a wonderful resource! They provide students with the perfect combination of structure and creativity to encourage them to ask their own questions and keep track of their discoveries.

The California Academy of Sciences has come up with some amazing guidelines for student scientific investigation notebooks. Let’s explore a little how these notebooks can assist student research and discovery, and how we implement this at NJIN!

Begin with a focus question.

It is best to begin the notebook journey with a very clear focus question. This helps students to identify a specific and measurable topic of interest that will direct their investigation and data gathering. Have students write this focus question at the start of their notebook and continually return to it to keep them on a focused path during investigation.

Students will likely need some assistance in formulating a strong focus question. Some helpful guidelines for coming up with a focus question are:

  • Make sure the question encourages reasoning and observation over “correct answers.”

  • Formulate a question that builds on student’s prior knowledge.

  • Choose a question that encourages a student’s curiosity.

We work closely with NJIN students to help them narrow down their investigation to a measurable focus question that is personally intriguing to them. Some examples of NJIN students’ focus questions from this year have been:

  • How does purslane assist the growth of watermelon in saline conditions?

  • How does the interplay between obesity rates and magnesium deficiency due to agricultural practices change the approach to public health strategy?

  • How can medicinal herbs use their antimicrobial properties to fight against food pathogens?

Create an investigation plan.

Once the focus question is determined, it is time for students to create a plan for investigation. The amount of structure for these plans will differ based on a student’s experience with lab work and scientific experimentation. If a student is new to lab work and scientific research, it is helpful to have them write out the focus question, and then divide their notebook into the following sections for each step:

  • Focus Question

  • Hypothesis

  • Materials

  • Independent Variable

  • Dependent Variable

Teachers can then work through each section with students, having them clearly write out the steps for their experimentation and leave room for data collection.

If a student is comfortable with lab work, they can create their own process that makes sense to them. Teachers should ensure that each step in the plan is numbered and clearly delineated in sections, leaving the student free to fill out investigation results in their own way.

We like to encourage students to begin their sections and plan steps with sentence frames beginning with “I” such as “I predict,” “I wonder,” and “I discovered.” This prompts reflection during investigation and deepens a student’s sense of project ownership.

Draw observations

The best part about investigation notebooks is how they encourage visualization throughout the research process! Encouraging students to sketch their observations and phases of investigation helps them connect their questions with the physical world.

It’s important to let students know that these sketches are not meant to be artistic masterpieces! Remind them that, as scientists, they are using sketches to record data for themselves and to communicate findings to other scientists. It’s best to provide students with some introductory sketching lessons to help them understand the purpose and the technique of scientific sketching.

There are 3 main ways to utilize sketching during the investigation process.

  • Sketching over time (students draw the different phases their research object goes through in the days, weeks, or months of their project)

  • Sketching for detailed observation (students draw their research object or tools used in experimentation to learn their specific parts and focus attention)

  • Sketching for meaning making (a section of the notebook should be left blank for free-format sketching to encourage students to visibly process whatever questions they have)

Whenever we have students visit the farm, we have them spend a portion of the day sitting by the lake, sketching their observations and writing about how the farm makes them feel. Connecting with self-curiosity through the investigation notebooks is important.

The research process requires both organization as well as a sense of fun and multi-dimensional creation! At NJIN, we love utilizing investigative notebooks and visual work to teach students these important research skills and show them how engaging the research process can be.

If you’re interested in learning more about scientific investigation, check out our program offerings at NJIN!

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