Lesson 3.1: Introducing Field Investigations

In this lesson, students are introduced to descriptive field investigations and conduct two different types on their school grounds.

Please read the Unit 3 introduction before beginnng this lesson.

Grade Level: 6 - 12 or equivalent

Subjects: Science, environmental science, ecology, geography

Concepts/Vocabulary: Field investigation, habitat

NGSS Performance Expectations:

Middle and high school:

  • Asking questions and defining problems

  • Planning and carrying out investigations

  • Constructing explanations and designing solutions

  • Engaging in argument from evidence

  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

5E Unit: Explain


  • Human-Environment Interactions

  • Cross-cutting Themes

  • Core Ecological Concepts

  • Ecology Practices

Universal Design for Learning Connections

Key knowledge (Students will know that):

  • Descriptive field investigations can be used to study parts of a natural system

  • Data is vital to supporting an argument or explanation of a natural phenomenon

  • By working in groups, more perspectives are included which makes for a stronger argument or explanation

Key skills (Students will be able to):

  • Plan and conduct a descriptive field investigation

  • Make connections between observations and data

  • Define roles and responsibilities for successful group work

Key dispositions (Students will value):

  • Nature and biodiversity for their intrinsic value to each of us and to society

  • The variety of life on their school grounds

  • The contributions of each group member to the lesson

Technology Connections: Internet resources, field guide apps for plants and animals such as iNaturalist, Seek, eBird, American Bird Conservancy's Bird Library, or others


  • Notebooks/electronic journal for each student to be used throughout the project as observation journals

  • Copies of the school grounds maps created in Lesson 2.2

  • Hula hoops, yard or meter sticks, or string for marking a small study area

  • Large paper for presenting student answers (or other means of displaying the information)

Estimated Time for Lesson: 3-4 45-minute class periods (or more, depending on how many observations students make)

Lesson Objectives

Students will:

  • Observe an outdoor space on their school grounds.

  • Represent their observations using words, drawings, labels, and maps.

  • Work in groups to accomplish these tasks.

  • Document their thoughts and insights about the activities in this lesson in a journal.

Assessment Opportunities

  • Contributions to class discussion

  • Quality of teamwork while observing on the school grounds

  • Descriptions of observations in student journals

  • Small group work


In field investigations, students pose a question then plan and conduct an investigation to answer that question. They use evidence to support explanations and build models, and to pose new questions about the environment. Field investigations take science beyond the laboratory and classroom, and help students become informed citizen scientists, making issues of concern visible and sharing their points of view about solutions. As noted in the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies' Field Investigations guide, from which this lesson is adapted (link below), research has shown that incorporating a cultural perspective can transform learning experiences so that they engage and are meaningful for learners.

In this lesson, students will participate in a descriptive field investigation, where they describe and quantify parts of a natural system; in this case, their school grounds. Students could return to this area numerous times throughout the school year and repeat the investigation, and would then be able to distinguish patterns and cause and effect relationships. These investigations are known as BioBlitzes and are widely conducted with students as citizen scientists.

The terms "school grounds" and "schoolyards" are used interchangeably in this lesson.

Getting Ready to Teach

This lesson follows a sequential step pattern and requires background knowledge (see above). You should spend some time on the school grounds prior to beginning the lesson to familiarize yourself with the best places for students to do this investigation, keeping in mind spaces with a variety of landscape to observe, proximity to your classroom to maximize the amount of time you can spend outside, and having enough space for students to spread out.

Students should be prepared to spend time outdoors on their school grounds for most of this lesson. They should have working knowledge of plant identification methods prior to beginning this lesson.

Please open the links prior to teaching the lesson. You may also refer to additional resources at the bottom of this page.

The Lesson

Part I. Descriptive Field Investigation of a Large Study Area

  1. In the first part of this lesson, students will conduct a descriptive field investigation by observing a large area of their school grounds.

  2. Students will investigate this question: "What plants and animals use the schoolyard habitat?"

  3. Review the strategies for field observation and remind students that they can use four of their five senses: sight, sound, touch, and smell. (Taste should be used only if you are certain of the safety of the plants in your area.)

  4. To give students some practice, use an object found outside such as a leaf or a rock and ask students to describe its physical properties and characteristics.

  5. For the field investigation, students can work in their small groups. Everyone should take turns writing observations, drawing, recording data, etc. in their journals. They can use copies of the school grounds maps they created in Lesson 2.2 to mark their study area. Encourage students to be descriptive in their explanations; for example, what shade of green is that leaf? What does the texture of that tree bark remind you of?

  6. This investigation should take place over several days, if possible. On each day, ask students to return to the same area and focus on different parts of the ecosystem they are investigating, such as:

a. Day 1: Overall general observations

b. Day 2: Look up! What is in the sky? In trees? Is anything flying?

c. Day 3: Look down! What is in the soil? In bushes? Underneath logs, leaves, etc.?

d. Day 4: What is at eye level?

  1. Students should use their four senses when making and recording observations. If there isn't time to do each of these observations on different days, students can divide them up and record what they observe.

  2. After each observation, ask students to share what they found. What questions do they have? Record observations and questions so they are visible to everyone.

Part II. Descriptive Field Investigation of a Specific Study Area

  1. In their groups, ask students to select a study area on the school grounds. Lay the hula hoop or make a circle or square from the string on that area. Place a yard/meter stick in the middle of this area to create a transect line and two observation quadrats. Students will make observations along this transect line, comparing what they find in each quadrat.

  2. Students will record their observations in their journals using written words, drawings, labeled diagrams, and/or numbers as they describe the area within the hula hoop, comparing the two quadrat areas, and noting items along the transect line. They can use field guides or apps to identify plants and animals.

  3. After completing the observation, ask students to discuss the relationships or patterns they noticed between the large study area and this smaller, more specific study area. What similarities and differences were there? Answer the investigative question, "What plants and animals use the schoolyard habitat?"

  4. Students can note the plants and animals they observed on a copy of their school grounds maps.

Part III. Presentation Preparation

  1. Have students open their journals and record their main takeaways from this lesson, including big ideas, relationships, and goals.

  2. Remind them that this overall project culminates in a presentation or other means of advocating for more ecological and culturally diverse school grounds.

  3. Using the Presentation Rubric, ask students to record some ideas in the "Presentation Ideas" section of their journal for the slide(s) or piece(s) of information to be included from Lesson 3 in the project presentation, if you will not be using slides. Label these ideas "Lesson 3.1" or with some other label that helps organize the information to align with the rubric. Students can work in their groups (which you may keep for the duration of the project) or individually.

  4. Collect the journals to keep for assessment and to ensure that all students are collecting the information needed for their presentations.

Additional Resources


In the Next Lesson (L 3.2)

Students will undertake a biodiversity inventory of their school grounds.