Observation is the cornerstone of good scientific practice and the subject of this issue of Musings.
Scientists must gather evidence in order to answer questions, a process which research paleontologist
Dr. Lowell Dingus calls, "the guts of scientific research." The focus of this issue's AMNH Profile, Lowell believes it's important to explain the research process to the general
public. This led him to a second career as a science writer, because, says Lowell, "I wanted to give people a
better sense of all the steps a paleontologist goes through to do his or her work." Whatever the unit of study,
teachers must tackle the same task: conveying the fundamentals of the scientific process to their students.
As stated in Science for All Americans: Project 2061, "Sooner or later, the validity of scientific claims is settled
by referring to observations of phenomena. Hence, scientists concentrate on getting accurate data. Such evidence
is obtained by observations and measurements . . ."(:1) The encouragement of students to make careful and meaningful
observations is an essential part of teaching them how to reflect on what they see in a scientific manner. Educator
Jane Kloecker believes that it's never too early to start the process of observing. She directs the Museum's Science
and Nature Program for Young Children, which is described in the In the Community feature. This is the first ongoing program to deal with teaching science to preschoolers at the American Museum of
Natural History. Part of Jane's mission is to develop a new group of museum-goers through outreach to underserved
communities. These groups incorporate parents and grandparents, as well as local teachers and community centers. "We
help the Head Start teachers develop their curriculum, so what they get from the program they take back to their
classrooms," observes Jean Rosenfeld, one of the Science and Nature Program teachers.
Pat Peterson develops the observation skills of significantly older children. She teaches AP biology and chemistry at
Palisades High School in Kintnerville, Pennsylvania, and is the focus of this issue's Teacher Feature. "A
basic tool of an observer of nature is a very careful eye," Pat notes. In each unit of study, Pat introduces her students
to a biological system and the tools used to observe and study it, then requires the students to develop a related line
of inquiry. A key teaching tool is the detailed scientific notebook she kept while engaged in deep-ocean research 200
miles off the coast of Washington during the summer of 1998. Pat would certainly agree with the editors of Science for
All Americans that a basic practice on the part of everyone, not just scientists should be to "keep a notebook that
accurately describes observations made . . . that is understandable weeks or months later." (:2)
As naturalist E. O. Wilson points out, good observations are not one-shot affairs but layered processes imbued with personal
meaning. "Our remembered images are reinforced like pictures improved by one overlay upon the next, each adding finer detail.
In the process, edges are sharpened, content refined, emotional colors nuanced," (:3) he writes. Observations should be subjective
as well as objective, noting impressions as well as facts, a point Dr. Maritza Macdonald consistently reinforces with the teachers
she works with as the Museum's Director of Professional Development. In the In the Classroom feature, Maritza talks
about the kinds of observations that help teachers and students alike get the most out of a learning experience, be it in a
classroom, a museum, or a backyard.
At the American Museum of Natural History, the primary teaching tool is the diorama. In the In the Museum feature, Supervisory
Museum Instructor Lisa Breslof talks about why dioramas are useful teaching tools, and how educators can help students acquire information
from them. Lisa defines the inquiry process as "the search for evidence in the exhibit to solve a problem," and notes that careful
observation enables students to remember what they see and to develop techniques that are useful in other contexts.
In this issue of Musings, we provide you with a number of strategies to help you and your students further develop the practice of scientific
observation. Be sure to explore the whole issue, and let us know if you use any of the strategies in your teaching practice. If you have
tips and exercises of your own that you would like to share, please write to us.
:1 Science for All Americans: Project 2061. American Association for the Advancement of Science, (1990), p. 4.
:2 Ibid., p. 191.
:3 Wilson, E.O. (1994) Naturalist. Island Press; Washington, D.C. p. 51