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Creative Summer Science: A Science Collection

Creating a display of a science collection can be a wonderful exercise in observation and classification. Plus, your student will end up with a tactile visual reminder and keepsake.

Beetle collection at the Melbourne Museum organized on a display board

Creating a foam board display of a science collection can be a fun summer science activity that ties together science and art. Searching for new and unusual samples can be turned into an exciting summer quest, and mounting and displaying samples (or photos of samples) gives the project lasting value. (Image: "Beetle collection at the Melbourne Museum, Australia," Wikipedia)

Some students collect postage stamps, coins, or baseball cards. Some prefer to nurture, seek, and expand collections of natural specimens. Leaves, feathers, rocks, and bugs are all common childhood collections as students explore the world around them with an eye to the ground, to the nearest bushes, to the garden, to the beach, or to what might be crawling around beneath a large rock. Creating display board collections of leaves or insects is a common school assignment, but for some young scientists, the desire to quantify and catalog the natural world is a drive that extends beyond the classroom walls and may continue into adulthood.

These kinds of collections inspire an appreciation for just how many species, in any domain, there really are. That there are more than 70,000 known species of flowering plants is a simple reminder that the natural world is much bigger than what you see in your own backyard. Visual displays of groups of natural objects, or of items related to a scientific theme, help viewers understand the scope and potential of certain areas, but they also make for interesting viewing. Harold Feinstein's photo collections, like One Hundred Butterflies and One Hundred Seashells, showcase difference, beauty, and variation in nature. As Fred Gagnon writes in the forward to One Hundred Butterflies, "butterfly collections and books are just some of the ways to tell people, 'Look what is out there in the world we live in every day. There is so much more than butterflies... yet look how many butterflies there are!'"

For those who appreciate the aesthetics of a grid or love even the hint of tessellation, visual displays can be both informative and artistic. Pheromone: The Insect Artwork of Christopher Marley, for example, shows a fascination with the beauty and diversity of insects, but Marley's work is also mesmerizing in its arrangement.

Cultivating a Collection

Scouring the backyard, local parks, or nearby beaches for items that fit a collection is a great way to encourage observation and increased awareness of local habitats and biospheres. Especially if the collection centers upon something in which the student is interested, this can be an excellent activity for summer months. Frogs? Leaves? Beetles? Collections don't come in a one-subject-fits-all format, but the quest for building, identifying, and showcasing a collection lets a student delve into an area of interest, with tangible and lasting results. You might even find that a collection project helps shape and guide some unexpected summer excursions and may feed a growing passion in a particular area of science!

Steps for Making a Science Collection in a Nutshell

  1. Go with a high-interest theme. Even your backyard offers myriad directions for a science collection. Make suggestions, but let them choose what to collect.
  2. Stock up on guide books. Check out plenty of reference books and field guides to inspire your student and to help with identification.
  3. Plan seek-and-find adventures. Go out once a week, or more, with the goal being to find a few new samples.
  4. Consider a photo display. Photographing findings can be a good way to get started, and a photo-based display opens up the collection to a broader range of topics. Interested in frogs? Birds? Rocks? Even if your collector gathers natural samples, like leaves, encourage photographing each one for a digital record.
  5. Nurture nature drawing. Supplement the collection process by encouraging your students to make sketches, drawings, and annotations of the samples they find, both in habitat and once home. The act of drawing the shape or distinct features of a sample helps train your student's observation skills and increases the ability to see the differences between similar species.
  6. Make it last. Your student's visual display can be hung on a wall, mounted in a poster frame, or displayed in some other way for year-round enjoyment.
  7. Label the collection. Use field guides to help identify what they find and encourage them to label each sample. This is a great chance to also talk about systems of classification!

Cataloging Science

In all fields, scientists are always on the lookout for new species, new discoveries, and evidence of evolution, hybrids, and more. More sophisticated forms of collection and documentation are often at the core of scientific cataloging. For more information, see "Desks Piled High, and Lizards for Lunch."

Getting Started

While a collection of findings from the backyard may not be as elaborate or as nuanced as a collection from a field scientist, this kind of student project can turn into an exciting quest and generate greater awareness of local biodiversity. The "Making Species Maps" and "Finding Phyla" projects offer guidance for getting a better sense of what species are in a specific area or local habitat. While these projects don't focus on a single species, they may help you and your students pinpoint a topic for a collection by first assessing what is around you. Similarly, the "Bug Vacuums: Sucking up Biodiversity" project can help you get started in thinking about how students can build and track an investigation of a nearby space, but you don't have to limit your students to bugs, insects, and worms!

Build a Photo Display

As part of an informal science collection process and project, creating a tangible display encourages students to work systematically on the project over a period of time. Some collections are added to over a period of weeks, months, or even years. Some collectors cultivate lifelong collections. With a visual display and catalog in mind as the "goal" of the collection, you will need to think through strategies for displaying the samples, but you (or your student) may or may not feel comfortable with a collection of once-live specimens. A workaround may be as close as your family camera. A photo-based documentation of findings and sightings can be a good entry point for a young enthusiast—and might eliminate concerns you have about 'pinning' samples. Plus, photographing a collection makes it easier to display a collection of larger or dimension objects, like rocks, shells, or sea glass. With photos, your students can work on cultivating a science collection that can scale with their age, interest, and the time spent scavenging.

Scavenging for All Ages

A photo-based collection lets even the youngest of students observe their surroundings and search for new samples to record. For older students, collecting photo samples can be a building-block opportunity for learning more about photography, but even without an understanding of focal point or aperture, passing out disposable cameras to your kids at the start of a nature walk can yield surprising results. Giving them the keys to independently document and record their findings may or may not generate high-quality photos, but you may find that they are more enthusiastic about the scavenger hunt with their own camera in hand.

Display the Findings

Once your students have amassed a number of photos, or finished their disposable cameras, print or develop the pictures. If you are working with digital photos, you might print the photos in varying sizes. You might also encourage students to crop or trim prints to best showcase the subject at hand. With a pile of printed photos, your students can mount them on foam board. Using reference books or field guides, encourage (or help) them to look up and identify samples captured in the photos and then label the photos on the board. (Tip: check out a few field guides from the library at the start of the project so they have a sense of what they may find, how specimens may differ, and how to make initial steps in identification or classification. They might also create a "most wanted" bucket list of samples they'd like to find.)

Start Small

Be realistic about what your student might manage to collect or locate. Your student might enjoy the challenge of trying to find a certain number of samples a week, a month, or over the total summer. But emphasize that a good collection grows over time. You don't have to have "every" sample in hand to start gluing things onto a display board. The board can be added to as the collection grows! Even a budding collection display can be pretty cool propped on a bookshelf or ledge, a visual reminder of a natural interest and of time spent exploring.

What will you find next for your display board collection? You might be surprised! Happy collecting!

Do you have a science collection? If you or your students have a science collection, we would love to see! Share photos (and your science collection stories) by emailing them to blog@sciencebuddies.org.

One Hundred Butterflies One Hundred Seashells Pheremone Field Guide cover Field Guide / Rocks cover


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