Our kids love science. Who could blame them? From the time they could walk I have tried to take them outside to explore their world. More importantly I try to teach them how to ask good questions and how to extract the answers from nature itself. My oldest kid collects everything; feathers, rocks, fossils, bones, plants, insects. A few years ago I began to develop a simple system to note and catalog collections and observations we make in the field. I think it’s a great way to teach kids how to collect and record data and how to use that data later on. Anyway I just thought I would share how we do it. Click to view or download PDF files.
Originally I made up forms and kept them in a binder and filled them out in the field. I have updated my methods somewhat and have now created fillable PDF documents so that the data can be entered on the netbook while photos, videos and audio recordings can be loaded, attached, cross referenced, etc. at the collection/observation site. The system is a simple one that can be improved upon, especially if you have older children or those interested in more serious or specialized research. My system is pretty inclusive but is tailored to the types of things we enjoy doing. You can use this website to customize your own fillable PDF documents.
If you do decide to take kids into the wilderness for some sciency fun I recommend a netbook, IPad, tablet or some other device that is highly portable and durable and some means of protecting it from the elements. We load our PDF forms onto the device and designate a folder for everything to be stored. Download a PDF printer program on the device such as this one. A digital camera with an easily accessible SD card, a digital audio recorder that saves audio in mp3 format and possibly a digital video system are all great to have as well. We also carry a GPS, thermometer, and a digital compass that gives humidity and altitude readings. We plug everything into the document on site just in case the information becomes important later.
At the site, enter your data in the selected fields including any environmental data you can. Weather conditions, time of day, temperature, all sorts of seemingly meaningless information can be useful later on. You will never regret having too much data. You always regret having too little. Now don’t finish completing the forms until all photos and audio/video recordings associated with the observation or items being collected have been tagged. We use the same notation to identify everything so that building a database later on will be easier. Finish the forms by logging all other tagged items that are related and then simply print the document to the folder using the PDF printer mentioned above. Once you get used to doing it all the time it really doesn’t detract from much at all from the experience.
Obviously there are better and more technically savvy methods as well as simpler methods for taking field notes. This method works well for us. It is a good middle ground between a pen and notebook and more sophisticated methods of data collection. I do keep a binder handy with the some of the printed forms just in case technology fails, which it is apt to do. This is what we use to keep track of insect collecting, nature photography, bird watching, rock collecting, fossil collecting, plaster casts of animal tracks, feather collecting, plant specimens, you name it. When we place an object in a collection it is labeled with the notation we use on the forms so that all the collections have the same data format. So, for example, if I am showing a beetle we collected to someone and they want to know more about when and where we found it I can simply enter the ID number on its label into my computer and it will pull up everything we recorded at the time of collection.
So that’s it. It may not be very interesting to most of you, possibly not to any of you. Data collection and manipulation may seem like the last thing you want to expose kids to when trying entertain them with science. I assure you though, let one of them notice a trend in that data and follow it to a conclusion and you will see a change. It doesn’t matter if it something undiscovered or something known to scientists for hundreds of years. If they realize that they made a discovery all by themselves, that they pulled scientific knowledge from the universe itself instead of a book that someone else wrote, they will be hooked for life.