Scientific Observation Activity

Pete Stelling, Western Washington University
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In this activity, students learn how to "do" science on their own by exploring their observations of the world around them. Once a student has made an observation, they are asked to create a question about that observation (typically beginning with the words "why" or "how"). Students then make additional observations that are relevant to their question. Using these additional observations, the student answers his/her question and then forms additional hypotheses (inferences) about the process (going beyond the data they have collected to make a prediction) or develops additional questions about the process and discuss how they would proceed to answer these questions. Ideally this activity would be repeated at least once during the term.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

The goal of this activity is for students to learn how to make observations about the world around them and how to explore their observations in a scientific manner. Another goal is to show science-phobic students that science isn't mysterious or a black box – it is something they can do on their own.

Process of Science Goals

Process goals for this activity are for students to make critical observations and learn to think logically / scientifically. A secondary process goal is for students to recognize and separate observations and inference.

Context for Use

This activity is designed for introductory science students ranging from middle school to university levels. It is best used as an out-of-class exercise, although it could be done in-class as well (especially for an outdoor day where a wider variety of observations could be made). I use this activity as an extra credit opportunity in my Introduction to Geology course, which is ~120 students, but it could easily be used in a classroom of any size without modification. No prior knowledge or skills are required, nor is any special equipment needed.
This activity could be easily extended to a term-long project. Students would begin the term by making an observation and adding more observations, questions, and hypotheses throughout the term. Alternatively, students could repeat the activity occasionally throughout the term, making more complex observations and inferences through course of the term.

Description and Teaching Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

Observations should be about a process rather than a simple object – this keeps the activity much more open-ended.
Also, observations should be about something they don't already know or understand. A common observation in the fall is leaves changing color, with common responses concerning the loss of chlorophyll in the fall. If they didn't already know about this process, they couldn't have come up with this on their own unless they have access to a microbiological laboratory.
If repeating this activity during a single term, you might try giving students different subjects to help narrow their focus (e.g., trees and vegetation, weather, rocks, manmade structures, etc.)


The assessment of this activity should focus on three main topics: the appropriateness / quality of the primary and supporting observations, the logic used to answer the initial hypothesis, and the quality of the additional hypotheses. These criteria should be spelled out in the explanation of the activity. For best results, have students repeat this activity at least once so that they have a chance to practice identifying an appropriate observation.

References and Resources