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Baby Steps to Science (Part 3): Collecting Observations

Revisiting Some Archived Articles that Have Not Been Lost, but May Have Been Forgotten and Are Worth a Fresh Read

Original Post Date: May 8, 2012


So far in this series, we have discussed counting and drawing as ways of engaging in science. In this article we are going to focus on collecting observations.

In science, as in life, observation is important. But one of the things that makes science different is the rigor with which the observations are collected and presented. For instance, it is one thing to say from experience that “bees seem to like dandelions,” and it is another thing to systematically collect observations regarding the flowers from which bees are eating.

To collect observations, you need to decide:

*What you are going to observe;

*How you are going to observe it; and

*How you are going to record your observations.

So, using the example of bees and flowers, let us ask and answer the following questions:

*What are we going to observe? We are going to observe the flowers on which bees prefer to land.

*How are we going to observe it? There are a lot of different methods of observation from which to choose. A simple one would be to pick a time each day to walk through your yard and photograph every bee you see and the flower on which it has landed.

​​*How are we going to record our observations? We are going to write the date, time, and species of flower on the photos we collect in the process of observation.

That is all there is to collecting observations! Now, you can go one step further using the “counting” baby step. You can count the number of bee pictures you took with each flower, and see which ones are the bees’ favorites. You can also look in the yard and see which flowers were not photographed, and this may indicate which ones the bees did not like.

You may not realize this, but with the addition of this baby step—collecting observations— you have entered the exciting stage of science progress in which you and your children can actually participate in real, ongoing science projects!

The science project on which I want to focus is the “lost ladybug” project. Cornell University wants to know more about ladybug populations in the United States. They want to know where they are found, what species are found, and in what quantities. Therefore, they are enlisting every backyard scientist to join them in their hunt for ladybugs.

In order to participate, all you need is a net (for catching them), a container (for holding them), a camera (for recording them), a grey board or sheet (for use as the backdrop for the photo), and a freezer (for slowing them down enough to take a picture). The net needs to be a “sweep net”—basically, a net without holes so the ladybugs cannot escape. Instructions for making one from a pillow case and a wire hanger are provided on the website that is listed at the end of this article.

So what do you do? First, pick a location and bring your children along. Second, go out into the grass and swing your sweep net back and forth through the plants, and then dump the ladybugs into containers. If you are in the woods, you can pick them off of trees. Third, you should put them in the freezer to make them slow down. Ladybugs can handle five minutes in the freezer, but more than six may kill them. If a freezer is not available a cooler will work, but it may take half an hour to slow them down. After removing them from the freezer or cooler, they will be relatively still for a few minutes so that you can take their picture. To take the picture, put the ladybugs on a light gray background and add in something, such as a coin, for size reference. Then take the closest shot you can while keeping the picture in focus.

After you get home, you can upload the pictures and send them to Cornell University. Simply list where and when you found the ladybugs, then send them the pictures. Congratulations—your family just participated in science!

For more information and to upload your photos, check out this website:

The lost ladybug project is not the only project enlisting the help of backyard scientists. Some others include:

*Project Budburst - collect observations on the lifecycles of plants in your area:

*Firefly Watch - collect observations on the activities of fireflies in your area:

*Mushroom Observer - collect observations on local mushroom growth:

​*Project Feederwatch - observe and count birds that come to your feeder in the winter:

​*The Great Backyard Bird Count - attempts to document where bird species are located across the continent on a specific day of the year:

*Project Noah - a general tool for collecting and sharing wildlife observations:

As you can see, just by collecting observations anyone of any age can get involved and participate in the work of science!

CATEGORIES: Articles, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Grammar Stage (ages 4 to 11), Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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