Science Notebooks

We are deep into our crazy period of the summer, in which kids fling themselves to the nine winds and Mom has to be in three different places at once to pick them up. (They’ve been having a lot of fun, and I’ve kind of enjoyed seeing different parts of the city.  Still — a little crazy.)  We’ve been eating a lot of dinners from the crockpot lately, and today I’m going to steal the concept and pluck a post from my drafts folder that’s been simmering a while in the interest of not having dead white space on my blog for too long.

I started this post back when Jen was hosting her discussion of Laurie Bestvater’s The Living Page.   I guess maybe now it’s not okay to quote from the book (per the author’s request, I guess) but Bestvater’s mention of science notebooks intrigued me. It seems that mostly science notebooks are mentioned in the context of older students.  I think this is because Bestvater is inferring their existence from a brief mention in a syllabus for Forms IV and V (roughly high school age): “Specimens should be used in all botanical work, and experiments must be made.  Keep a Nature Note-Book.  Choose special studies.” And then she speculates that maybe, in the upper levels, one notebook would perform the expansive function of holding not just nature sketches, but records of experiments (etc.) from all the sciences under study in that year.  (If you scroll down on Jen’s “Paper Stuff” Charlotte Mason page, you can see her compilations for what different forms were studying during one particular term in the junior/senior high years.  Form IV –grades 10/11 — has entries for Biology and Botany, Astronomy, and Geology, for example.)

A brief mention in a syllabus is not much to go on, but it does open up a lot of intriguing possibilities, and not just for high school students (in my opinion).  Younger children are often interested in topics which aren’t traditionally covered by the nature notebook — dinosaurs, for instance, or building bridges, or black holes — and most of us do at least the occasional experiment with the younger-than-fourteen set.  Younger kids draw diagrams of hurricanes and pictures of the solar system, nebulae, and galaxies (just to name a couple of the things that my own kids have done).  They also experiment with aluminum foil boat design and have chemistry sets.  (Well, we haven’t made the leap to a chemistry set yet, but maybe next year?)    All of these interests and studies can be recorded, and none of them really fit into the nature journal.  Why not keep a science notebook? We’ve done this in the past mostly centered on particular topics.  Otherwise, I have to admit that much of their science-y stuff is photographed by me and put on the blog, or put in a “science section” in a regular binder and then filed at the end of the year.  But keeping a general science notebook might be appealing to my more engineering-oriented boys.

Some artwork from a notebook on dinosaurs my oldest kept in second grade

Some artwork from a notebook on dinosaurs my oldest kept in second grade

Rebecca Rupp, author of The Complete Home Learning Source Book, criticizes the Charlotte Mason method for being “severely lacking” in science.  Rupp is a cellular biologist, and I’m sure she was looking only at the surface of things: it does seem as if all of Charlotte Mason’s recommendation for science is “to keep a nature notebook”.  And while keeping a nature notebook will undoubtedly help a person to build up a picture of local ecology (or perhaps geology), there is more to even the “poetic” study of science.  I’m thinking specifically of physics here, and of Einstein’s thought experiments, and Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, and Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (whether or not you agree with it), but also in biology, Bernd Heinrich’s books, which are certainly poetic, but also full of experiments with moths and ravens and bumblebees.  I think “poetic” here might be translated as “conceptual”, and as such, may actually have the potential to be more scientific than your typical do-the-experiments-in-the-textbook-and-get-the-same-results approach.

Katydid now keeps a field notebook, a hybrid of science and nature.

Next year Gareth will be in his senior year, and I wish I had thought about this possibility far earlier, because I think this integrated approach to science — having one science notebook for all the sciences and not trying to focus on the standard one-compartmentalized-science-for-a-whole-year — would have worked well for him. This sort of approach would be hard to jump into mid-stream in high school, though, which is why you still need to think about how high school will go when your child is as young as 11 even (actually, especially) if you intend to be unschooly or non-traditional in any way.  Because there are certain graduation and college entrance requirements that he will need to meet.  In our experience, the “poetic”, non-textbook approach has worked just as well if not better than the standard textbook approach in many ways, but it has certainly required more thought.

Some more examples of science notebooks:

A Peaceful Day: The Science Notebook

Sage Parnassus: Science Narration Journals

Journey and Destination: Notebooks for Nature Study, Science, Bible, Poetry, and Hymn Study


  1. I totally agree and we have been doing this type of thing for a while now. Mostly just because I can’t keep up with too many notebooks at once, but also because as the children grow, there is less distinction between science and nature. I am at a point now where we also add geography (especially physical geography) to the same notebook. Because, when you think about it, when you are studying, for example, deserts, you have aspects of nature study, physical science, earth science, geography…why record it in 3 separate places?
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    • Theresa, I would love to see a sample of one of your science notebooks some time! I’m hoping to be more organized with this in the coming year and incorporate more sciences into my 10th grade daughter’s work for the year. It makes it a little trickier to do a transcript, but I’m a little more confident now having gotten to senior year with my son.

  2. Love this…despite having a science degree, teaching it in the homeschool has been my nemesis. I’m going to check out all the books you mentioned!
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    • My daughter and I are huge Bernd Heinrich fans. Probably the book that comes closest to showing the mix of poetics and experimental science is In a Patch of Fireweed. The Snoring Bird is his autobiography, but his father had some really weird relationships, so I’m not sure I would hand that one to a teenager (although as an adult I read it and loved it… some great history in it, too, aside from his father’s indiscretions!)

  3. As always inspirational to see what you’ve been up to Needing some inspiration at present and really need to get more focused next term.
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    • I’m in “thinking mode” for our next school year right now… or at least I’m trying to be, around everything else that’s going on. We’ll see how it pans out, but I think that Bestvater’s book and the subsequent discussion is helping me see how to do notebooks without being fussy about it. Everything has to be simple here, or it won’t get done! I think at least some of my boys will like the idea of the notebook as a record of their investigations.

  4. I really appreciate your thoughts on this topic, especially from your perspective as a mom of varied ages including lots of science-interested boys. AO is developing a living books science booklist for the upper grades as we speak (and it’s supposed to be an integrated approach as well), and I am really excited to see it, because so many people (even in CM circles) end up just going the usual textbook route, even as early as elementary school. That doesn’t really appeal to me, and I don’t think it would appeal to my kids, so I love hearing from others who are really thinking about how to approach the sciences in varied ways, including “keeping.” And goodness, your daughters field notebook is fantastic!!
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    • I’ve heard about what AO is doing and I’m eager to see it, too. At this point, we’ve taken a number of approaches to high school science: a more unschoolish approach with a lot of choice in non-textbook materials; a more structured non-textbook approach; and a traditional, textbook oriented outside class. The textbook-based class covered a lot more material, but retention with that approach for a kid not pursuing science as a career path seems to be about nil. At the end of last year, we went with a more project-based approach for my daughter (who was in 9th grade) and that seemed to work very well, so I think we’re going to keep going in that direction for the upcoming year. We may use a textbook, but it will fit into the overall plan instead of *being* the overall plan. And I do think that her 10th grade science is going to be more integrated, because it just makes more sense to me to be able to draw in all the connections.

  5. Thanks for linking to my post, Angela. Appreciated your comments on CM & the Sciences. I’m thinking hard about how to go about my 15 yr old son’s science and especially about choosing some living books for Biology.
    Carol recently posted…Science & Natural History with a 15 Year oldMy Profile

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