Beacon Lesson Plan Library

Observation Challenge

Mark Howell


Students are asked to observe a similar set of items and write a detailed description about one of those items. That description is read by others who then try to select the item being described.


The student knows that scientists in any one research group tend to see things alike and that therefore scientific teams are expected to seek out the possible sources of bias in the design of their investigations and in their data analysis.


-4 White mice (in 4 separate pet containers)
-4 Meal worms (in 4 separate petri dishes)
-4 Corn kernels
-4 Green peas
-4 New pencils
-4 Regular Pringles
-4 Cheddar cheese goldfish
-4 Hibiscus flowers
-4 Live oak leaves
-4 Acorns
-4 Sycamore seeds
-4 Ants
-A pad of sticky notes
-12 Hand-held magnifying lenses
Note: These items are at the discretion of the teacher. The items listed were those that I used.


1. Gather the materials to be observed.
2. Prepare 48 labelled index cards. (12 labelled A, 12 labelled B, etc.)
3. Set up the twelve stations, placing the four similar items on top of four labelled index cards.
4. Place a hand-held magnifier at each station.
5. Establish twelve groups of 2-3 students each.


1. Explain to the students that they will be using their observation skills today, and how important observation skills are for scientists.

2. Tell the students that scientists often look at others' observations to validate experiments or theories.

3. Walk to each of the 12 stations and describe what is found--four similar items, resting on 4 separate index cards labelled A,B,C, and D. Note: The mice are in 4 separate pet containers, and the mealworms are inside 4 separate petri dishes.

4. Inform the groups that their goal is to go to an assigned station and take 5 minutes to observe the items at that station. After observing the items, they select one and describe it in detail on paper, looking for anything that may distinguish it from the others.

5. After each description has been written, ask the groups to turn the descriptions over temporarily.

6. The groups are then given one sticky note. On the sticky note they write the letter of the item they chose to describe. They also write the number of the station they are at on the sticky note.

7. After the groups have finished writing their choices and station numbers on the sticky notes, the notes are given to the teacher.

8. Now ask the groups to get one sheet of notebook paper out and fold it in half.

9. Instruct students to label one half of the paper “Our Group's Guess,” and the other half, “Actual Item Described.”

10. Once those papers are completed, inform the students that it is time to cycle through the stations. When they arrive at a station they do so in a clockwise fashion. Once they have arrived, they turn over the paper and read the description in front of them. They then use the magnifier to observe the items and try to decide which item is being described.

11. When ready, they record the letter of the choice they feel is being described on their paper in the “Our Group's Guess” column.

12. Students are allowed three minutes at each station. (The time is kept by the teacher using the stopwatch.)

13. Upon rotating to the next station, the students turn the description over once again, and move on and repeat the activity at the new station.

14. This process is repeated until the students arrive at the station they started at.

15. Once everyone has cycled through, ask for quiet and reveal the letters for the actual items that were described, as the students record the letters on their paper under the appropriate column.

16. After, ask each group how many answers they were correct in guessing.

17. Answers vary, but usually the students find the activity very difficult.

18. Ask the students why the activity was difficult. (The students usually say it's hard to select an item based on a written description. Especially when the description was written without them standing there to observe the characteristics being described.)

19. Students will also tell you that had they spent more time observing they may have increased their odds in selecting the correct item.

20. Let the students understand that often times this is exactly what scientists do. They go out and discover a new animal and not having a camera ready, they write a description of what they saw. They then give their description to an explorer to go out and find the animal they wrote about and that person finds it very difficult to find the animal because others look just like it.

21. Overall, the students realize that in order for everyone to get the right answers for the activity they completed, the descriptions would have to be in greater detail than the descriptions they wrote. This makes it easier to compare against the other items, increasing the chance of picking the right item.


Ask each student to write a paragraph about what what was learned about scientific observation, bias, and data analysis. A student that does not show understanding of the scientific principle of observation and how bias in an investigation can play a part should receive feedback from the teacher and have an opportunity to rewrite it. Ask the students to include a couple of sentences in their paragraphs that explain why scientists often find it easier or more beneficial to work in groups.


This activity can be done outside, and the students could select plants to be observed.
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