First Monday

A good day to see a bobcat: Elementary students' online journal entries during a structured observation visit to a wildlife center by Michelle M. Kazmer, Nicole D. Alemanne, Anne Mendenhall, Paul F. Marty, Sherry A. Southerland, Victor Sampson, Ian Douglas, Amanda Clark, and Jennifer Schellinger

This paper presents findings from a qualitative analysis of electronic journal entries created by elementary school students during field trips to a nature center. The field trips were part of the Habitat Tracker project ( designed to help elementary students learn about scientific practices. The Habitat Tracker team developed a mobile app and accompanying Web site integrated with a standards-based science curriculum. The mobile app includes observation worksheets and an electronic journal that guide student inquiry activities during the field trip. This study focuses on how the students’ journal entries demonstrate features of scientific journaling; how students engage in scientific practices when journaling; and how including multiple nature observation sites during a field trip shapes students’ journal writing. Our analysis demonstrates that journal entries reveal underlying strengths and weaknesses of students’ progress in scientific inquiry. The analysis indicates persistent effects of scaffolding and how carefully scaffolds’ content and delivery must be designed.


Research environment
Research questions
Data collection and analysis methods
Discussion and implications




“1 is in the tree is licking long do bobcats live?the bobcat is strering at every body?Taking a poop.the bobcat just cimbe up the tree a little and it just licked itself.the bobcat is looking weird.why does the bobcat moves it’s tail a lot then Mose it tail a lot and just poup again .it seem to love resting.” [student journal]

The Habitat Tracker project team developed a customized fourth- and fifth-grade curriculum in which students’ data collection during a field trip to an outdoor natural wildlife center/museum (the Tallahassee Museum, is integrated with classroom-based lessons on the nature and practices of science. The project combines the educational benefits of scientific journaling with interactive technologies that enable students to collect data to support classroom inquiries (Alemanne, et al., 2012; Marty, et al., 2012). It explores whether encouraging students to participate actively in gathering and analyzing data improves their understanding of the nature and practices of science. Habitat Tracker draws on more than a decade of research on mobile computing in museums to design a system to help students develop scientific questions, collect data to address their questions, and make inferences based on the collected data. The project includes two technologies:

  1. An iPad app students use to record and answer scientific questions and record observations of wildlife activities and the field trip experience, all of which can be shared with other students online; and,

  2. A project Web site where students access content about museum wildlife; read, edit, and share journal entries; discuss findings with students in other classes and schools; and co-create a database of animal, habitat, and weather observations they use to answer scientific questions. The site facilitates collaborative learning beyond a single class and extends the museum experience beyond a one-time visit.

Before the museum visit students learn about the nature and practices of science through classroom activities, use the Web site’s content and observations database to conduct background research about the animals, and develop scientific questions about the habitats and animals they will see at the museum. During the field trip students record observations about the habitats, animals, and weather in digital worksheets and use the digital journal to reflect on their scientific questions, observations, and field trip experiences. In the classroom after the field trip students return to the Web site to answer their research questions by analyzing data from the observations database and the journals, and to communicate their results to their peers.

For example, after using the Web site to conduct background research, students in one class hypothesized about behaviors of bobcats: how they eat, sleep, and play. They created research questions such as “What activities do the bobcats do most often in the morning?” At the museum, they completed structured observations of the bobcats’ behavior (eating, sleeping, or eliminating), of their habitat (puddles, droppings, litter, or enrichment objects), and of the weather (temperature, humidity, wind direction, and wind speed). They also wrote journal entries about their experiences at the museum. Back in the classroom, they used the Web interface to access their own observation data and the compiled observation data created by all students in the project. They analyzed the data to refine and answer their research questions and create presentations about their findings.

Habitat Tracker is designed to encourage students to participate actively in their scientific inquiries. Using open-ended journal entries students can pursue their own interests, complementing the structured data they collected through the application’s observation worksheets. Students use the journal entries to make their personal experiences and scientific inquiries an integral part of science learning.




“Alligators are Cute but Vicious.” [student journal]

The analysis reported here is the first examination of the open-ended journal entries students created during their field trips. To focus this qualitative analysis, we drew on four areas of knowledge: journaling as part of science; journaling as genre work; scaffolding inquiry activities; and the physical effects of technology (particularly in outdoor research environments). Considering scientific journaling allows a focus on the science learning outcomes of journal writing, while the focus on the genre of journals indicates how students might approach creating this kind of text. Examining how scientific inquiries can be scaffolded shows the potential effects of knowledge structures on students’ journaling and learning. Looking at the physical effects of technology and the environment where this activity took place highlights ways the environment and technology influence the texts students produce.

Journaling as part of science

Nature journaling has been part of science as long as humans have kept records; people recorded experiences with hunting, exploration, community illness, and the passage of time. Nature journaling has a long history in education, with schoolchildren recording their observations of communities and nature and those notes becoming “basal readers” [1] for subsequent generations. Journaling can take place in or out of the classroom and can foster observational, critical thinking, and communication skills. Journaling is multi-disciplinary, incorporating science with language, math, and social and natural history. Keeping a nature journal affects what students choose to learn, study, or explore, and the amount of satisfaction they derive from an education field trip (Leslie and Roth, 2003). There is a growing tradition of journaling in science education to foster science learning in which students produce written explanations of the processes in an inquiry, paying particular attention to claims, evidence, and reflection (Hand, et al., 1999).

Educators have recognized a need to re-engage students in making sense of nature, and the focus of much school science is to help students become scientifically literate. Science literacy goes beyond understanding science to include the ability and willingness to participate in public discussions of science. By participating in science writing activities such as nature journaling, students learn how to evaluate new ideas and assess alternative hypotheses, integrate divergent concepts, make observations, solve problems, and consider causes and explanations for observations (Hand, et al., 1999). Writing exercises can help students understand the process of scientific discourse and how to clarify their thoughts by writing and responding to others (Hand, et al., 1999). The use of electronic journals in science education addresses Yore’s (2000) call for more authentic, integrated, and embedded multi-media student learning experiences.

Journaling as genre

Science journaling is not only “about science” but also takes place within the genre of the journal. Known forms of text structure, and specific routines of language activity, manifest as genres that shape the content of what students write (Honig, 2010; Keys, 2000; Klein, 1999). Students use language to re-create text structures that reflect their understanding of the target genre and subject content (Keys, 1999). Genre is often imagined from the perspective of the audience or the document (Beghtol, 2001), but equally important is the work authors do to align their texts within a genre (Langer, 1985). The word “journal” activates in each student’s mind a particular genre which may or may not be aligned with the norms for scientific discourse (Honig, 2010). For example, diaristic journaling may be thought of as personal, non-linearly discursive, and private or written to an unspecified or imaginary audience. Science journaling is different because it involves reflection on science knowledge and development of understanding, and entails specific learning outcomes for recall and comprehension (Dianovsky and Wink, 2012).

Scaffolding inquiry activities

Scaffolded inquiry occurs when a knowledgeable adult or peer guides students to perform tasks beyond their current abilities (Dewey, 1938). A scaffold is a structure of resources (human and non-human) and processes that work together to provide cognitive and social support for students’ learning (Azevedo, et al., 2008; Kim and Hannfin, 2011; Wood, et al., 1976). Scaffolds can be dynamic and adaptive, fading as learners’ knowledge and ability grow (Azevedo, et al., 2008; Kim and Hannafin, 2011; Saye and Brush, 2002). In inquiry learning, where students learn by posing questions and working to answer them, scaffolding can be a key to student success (Kim and Hannafin, 2011; Quintana, et al., 2005). Technology-enhanced scaffolds serve varied purposes in supporting students’ participation in their learning, and include the following types:

Technology provides scaffolds for students in activities they would not otherwise be able to do. Technology tools can make data collection and manipulation easier and more efficient, enabling students to focus on critical thinking (Novak and Krajcik, 2004), and reify knowledge schemas so students can more readily assimilate new knowledge (Hoz, et al., 2001). A technology journaling tool can mitigate against difficulties of paper journals such as legibility and with online applications can allow students and teachers to view, edit, share, and assess journals simultaneously and from anywhere [2].

Technology in the physical environment

Mobile technologies allow students to collaborate and create while they explore physical environments (Clegg, et al., 2012; Fails, et al., 2010) and to “take ownership” [3] of their work by deciding the order in which they complete activities. Factors such as screen angle and orientation, display size, and user arrangement influence collaborative work in several ways: Horizontal orientation may engender more collaboration than vertical orientation when users share displays. Users crowding around a small display may interfere with each other’s workspace and personal space. Side-by-side users gain similarity of perspective but lose the ability to read each others’ facial expressions easily (Higgins, et al., 2011; Inkpen, et al., 2005; Rick, 2012). Bright sunlight can make using mobile devices outdoors harder (Benford, et al., 2001) and text may be made effectively illegible by sharp viewing angles when users share a device (Fails, et al., 2010). For children, typing results in accurate and on-task input but may be cumbersome during fieldwork (Wyeth, et al., 2011). Using a touch surface is a more natural movement than using a mouse, but precision (e.g., control and accuracy of selection) can suffer (Higgins, et al., 2011). The iPad app and Web site developed for the Habitat Tracker project were designed to support students’ scientific journaling and science inquiry while keeping in mind these technological affordances. Design of the app and Web site are discussed in detail by Marty, et al. (2013).


iPad animal observation worksheet #1
Figure 1: iPad animal observation worksheet #1.




Research environment

“The red wolf was an amazing sight to see.they would run around showing how exciting they were for food.they had colors such as red,gray,black,and tan. Overall they were a geat sight to see!they are a endangered species and there is only a couple left in the wild.i feel like there a main attraction to the museum!.” [student journal]

The journal entries analyzed here were written during field trips in Habitat Tracker Phase 1 and Phase 2 tests from Fall 2011 to Fall 2012. Teachers and fourth- and fifth-grade students used the project’s curriculum in their classrooms before and after the field trip. Before the field trip students learned about the nature and practices of science, discussed scientific questions they wanted to investigate, and were introduced to the iPad app. The iPad app scaffolded the field trip activity with worksheets for the habitat, animal, and weather observations.

During Phase 1, a project member visited many of the classrooms before and after the field trips to model effective ways to approach the curriculum. In Phase 1 field trips, docents led classes of up to 25 students on tours of 10 wildlife habitats (deer, turkey, otters, red wolves, bobcats, panthers, alligators, black bears, grey foxes, and skunks), with each class starting at a different habitat. As each class reached the bobcat habitat (the project’s design prototype and test site) the researchers distributed iPads to small groups of students and told them to collect structured observation data and write a journal entry. Students used electronic worksheets in the iPad app, shown in Figures 1 and 2, to collect data about the bobcat habitat, bobcats’ activities, and weather conditions (from a weather station).

During Phase 2, researchers observed all classroom lessons to support the teachers and record fidelity of implementation of the curriculum. Students learned about the nature and practices of science, discussed scientific questions they wanted to investigate, and used the online journal to write about those questions. At the wildlife center, docents led small groups of students on tours of the ten habitats. Each small group of students used the iPad app to gather observation data (using the structured worksheets) and wrote open-ended journal entries at multiple habitats. The classroom teachers determined whether all students made observations at all habitats or if student teams were assigned to specific habitats. There was no coaching to write a journal entry beyond the instructions students received about using the app, but project team members were available during field trips to answer questions and provide tech support.


iPad animal observation worksheet #2
Figure 2: iPad animal observation worksheet #2.



iPad journal entry screen
Figure 3: iPad journal entry screen.


In contrast to the highly-structured observation worksheet screens the journal entry screen provided little scaffolding; its layout suggested that students write a “title” and a “post” (Figure 3). During Phase 1, researchers provided scaffolding to the students when they arrived at the bobcat habitat by reminding them to write a journal entry as part of their instructions for completing an observation. If students asked for instructions during the observation they were reminded about the journal and if they were unsure of what to write they were given general suggestions such as, “You could answer your research questions, or write about your observations, or write about the field trip — it’s your journal.” The students were helped if they had problems with the technology (such as dropped Wi-Fi connections or difficulties submitting entries). Otherwise, they completed their journals unassisted. Most student groups chose to complete the observations first and then write journal entries. Researchers observed a range of ways that students divided up the journaling work. Some groups composed their entries collaboratively with one student typing, while others composed collaboratively and shared the typing duties. Fewer groups split both composing and typing duties, and in a few cases one group member wrote the entry alone.


Table 1: Number and type of journal entries included in the analysis.
Entry typeTotal entriesDuplicate entriesIncomplete entriesAnalyzed entries
Journal title92920669645
Journal content929205169555




Research questions

This qualitative analysis of the journal entries was designed to answer three research questions about how the students’ journal entries demonstrate their engagement with the practices of science with emphasis on scientific journal writing. The research questions helped our large interdisciplinary team of researchers create a shared orientation for our analysis. They emerged from the purpose of the Habitat Tracker project and from the four areas presented as background knowledge (above) and are:

RQ1: In what ways do the students’ journal entries demonstrate features of scientific journaling?

RQ2: How often and in what ways do students engage in scientific practices, such as asking questions or developing inferences based on data, when using the journal?

RQ3: How does the inclusion of multiple data collection sites during a field trip shape student journal entries and titles?



Data collection and analysis methods

This analysis considers 929 journal entries completed by 1,555 students during 27 trips to the museum as part of Habitat Tracker Phase 1 and Phase 2 in the 2011–2012 and 2012–2013 school years. The data are characterized in Table 1.

An inductive thematic analysis method was used to examine the journal entries (Charmaz, 2006; Schrire, 2006; Strauss and Corbin, 1998). Codes to describe the title and content of each journal entry were developed through inductive analysis of a subset of posts (Dickey, et al., 2007). Three researchers developed the codes following procedures described by Dickey, et al. [4]: each coder examined 50 posts and created “open” codes not from a pre-defined list. The researchers used an iterative discussion process to develop a code list for the full set of journal titles and entries. One decision that resulted from this process was to code each entry’s title separately from its content. The iterative process was also used to resolve disagreements about coding (Ahuvia, 2001) resulting in one corpus of coded data (Bradley, et al., 2007; Steinke, 2004). Table 2 and Appendix list the final codes, code counts, and exemplar posts to demonstrate how the codes were used. The final code list included 20 title codes and 20 content codes. To save space, codes accounting for ≥1 percent of the applied codes are included in Table 2 and Appendix 1; a complete code list is available from the authors. Journal entry titles and content could be coded with multiple codes. Duplicate records were coded to identify the parent record. Incomplete entries were not further coded for content because most were followed by successfully completed entries that were coded, and those that were not subsequently completed did not include enough data to be coded accurately.

After the Phase 1 journal entries were coded and analyzed according to the research questions, the three researchers who began the coding and analysis shared preliminary findings with the remaining Habitat Tracker research team. One researcher pointed out that the Deduction code was potentially inaccurate and inadequate, because students also engaged in inductive and adductive reasoning. The Phase 1 journal entry coding had already been iteratively discussed and conflicts resolved, so the researchers decided to test a new code, Reasoning, in the Phase 2 journal entries. The goal of using the Reasoning code was to reflect more accurately what the students did and to provide an adequate code for all reasoning processes. Adding the Reasoning code reduced coding conflicts and represented the students’ scientific work more accurately. The iteration of the codebook used for the Phase 2 coding reflected our learning from the Phase 1 coding and the changed conditions for Phase 2.

The concepts associated with journaling (RQ1) and scientific practices (RQ2) were examined by focusing our analysis on posts that were coded with the 17 codes shown in Table 2 and Appendix. This concept-driven approach to purposeful sampling of the data (Coyne, 1997; Patton, 2002) did not force a framework onto the data; rather, it allowed a means of access to the dataset using codes that were based exclusively on the data’s content. The codes were not used as restrictive criteria to determine which journal entries could and could not be examined. Neither did the researchers cherry-pick entries that seemed interesting, because all titles and journal content referenced by the 17 codes were examined. To answer RQ3, the same 17 codes were examined in the Phase 2 data and differences that appeared in the journal entries from the nine non-bobcat habitats as well as differences in the journal entries from the bobcat habitat were considered.




The presentation of findings is organized by the research questions. All journal entries are presented as originally written, including spelling, punctuation, and spacing to reflect accurately the voices of our student participants. Errors in posts are due in part to the environment: students were outside, standing up, with no place to rest the iPads safely, using a touch screen keyboard. Individuals’ names have been redacted and replaced with single initial placeholders. After the addition of the Phase 2 journal entries, the overall corpus of data still largely represented bobcat habitat observations (837 out of 929), so more examples provided in the findings and discussion are from the bobcat observations.

RQ1: Features of scientific journaling

“... if you have never met me i am a animal girl ...” [student journal]

Analyzing these journal entries as the “open-ended” portion of the observation — compared with the highly structured worksheet portion — indicated that students used the structure provided via the interface, the in-class curriculum, the prior scaffolding of the worksheets, and the guidance from teachers and project staff at the museum to frame their journal entries. Students saw text boxes labeled Title and Post and conscientiously completed them (codes for off-topic or unintelligible entries were barely needed). Most titles worked to anchor the post by including the name of the observed habitat, usually the “Bobcats” (Figure 4). Titles were often constructed using appropriate capitalization and striving to be title-like (referred to as “obviously titular” in the coding). Obviously titular titles sometimes referenced additional context to guide a potential reader: “Bobcats on wens day.” Some tended to the opinion or marketing aspect of title creation (“Bobcat adventure!”) while others provided information about what the students were doing (“bobcat observations”) or what the animals were doing (“bobcat pacing”). Indicating journal and classroom norms of signing one’s work, 268 of the titles included student names (“T. and B. observation,” “Bobcat obs ervation m. and s.”).


Example journal entry composed on the iPad
Figure 4: Example journal entry composed on the iPad.


Not as much explicit genre work was seen in the posts’ content as in the titles, although two codes (Audience and Student Name) indicated genre work directly and one code pair (Observation and Observation — Past Tense) implied it. Posts directed toward an audience indicated the students’ awareness of a reader but no need to identify the specific reader, a combination typical of journaling. Such posts sometimes included brief texts directed toward an audience (“Thanks”; “thank, for letting me go on this awspme feld trip”) within posts that otherwise focused on scientific observations, reasoning, and/or research questions. Posts and titles coded Student Name also implied the awareness of an audience and demonstrated the norm of signing one’s work. The shift from present tense to past tense within an observation may reflect awareness of an audience and the importance of creating an accurate narrative typical of the journal genre: “The bob cat was sitting in the tree resting so it can have more energy to play around. The bob cat is laying in the tree sleep. One of them is pooping in the grass.” The journal entries in Phase 2 displayed less explicit genre work, with fewer occurrences as a percentage of the total number of entries of the Audience, Student name, and Observation/Observation — Past Tense combination codes. Explicit genre work was also different in Phase 2, with large decreases in the proportions of diary-type signatures and posts that addressed unseen audiences.

A new phenomenon in Phase 2 was titles that indicated the type of content in the post. Examples included: “questions,” “our question,” and “What I learn about bobcats from the readings.” Titles of this type (assigned the new code Meta Title) were absent from Phase 1. Influences of specific teachers and their implementation of the intervention were also apparent in Phase 2. For example, Question Titles were produced in a class where the teacher provided scaffolding questions such as “What did you learn from reading about your animal?” and “What do you expect to accomplish at the museum?” In these instances the students entered the teacher’s question(s) in the title field and provided the answer(s) in the content area.

RQ2: Scientific practices in the journal entries

“The bears got ANGREH!!!!!!” [student journal]

“Why is the bobcat shy?” [student journal]

Journaling is intended to support students in learning how to make observations and consider potential causes of and explanations for observed phenomena. This aspect was examined through a focus on journal entries coded for observation (present and past tense), deduction/reasoning, opinion, and expressing knowledge, as well as observation and opinion titles. The Express Knowledge code, applied when students used phrases such as “I learned” or “I found out,” was not as relevant as expected for this research question because those posts tended to repeat things students had been told rather than things they had observed, so we focused on the other codes here.

Even a simple code-counting approach indicated that students made observations and wrote them in their journals. The Observation code was applied 521 times to journal entries, plus 309 applications of the Observation — Past Tense code. Observations tended to be simple declarative sentences that appeared to be shaped by the structured observation worksheets they had already done, focused on the number of animals in the habitat and their activities. Most of the activity terms matched those on the worksheet (e.g., “walking,” “resting,” “interacting,” “climbing,” or “pacing”) but students also inserted their own terms (“A bobcat was chilling in the tree”; “After thay prance a lot thay start wolking”) and introduced the word “poop” in 21 unique journal entries despite the word “eliminating” having been used on the worksheet.


Table 2: Journal entry title codes [individual names are redacted].
Observation title1105.32%Bobcats climbing (also coded Habitat title)
Bobcat in a tree (also coded Habitat title)
Question title884.21%How many bobcats are there (also coded Habitat title)
What do bobcats do (also coded Habitat title)
Opinion title1054.07%Bobcats rest a lot. They are interesting (also coded Habitat title)
bobcats are cool!!!! (also coded Habitat title)
Same title663.19%(used when text of Title is identical to text of Content)


The Opinion code was used for opinions that could not be considered observations or inferences (deductions or reasoning), and coders agreed to give students the benefit of the doubt and assign the Deduction/Reasoning code if it was unclear whether a post was deduction/reasoning or an opinion. So “The black bear will only get up to go to the bathroom” was coded as reasoning, but “They r cute ...” was coded as an opinion. The border between the two was fuzzy in part because students struggled to do the scientific work of using their observations to generate inferences but did not always succeed. Posts that only reflect opinions tend to be short: “This bobcat is awesome,” or “I think they are very cool.”

The next two posts exemplify (i.e., they are representative of similar content found in posts coded as both Opinion and Deduction/Reasoning;) students’ work toward using observations to draw inferences and create questions: “Bobcats seem to like the shade on a hot day. Bobcats are very pretty creatures to look at. I wouldnt mess with them during their rest because they may injur me or hurt me severely.Bobcats have short tails.they seem to pace back and forth across their habitat.I named my favorite one R. because I used to have a cat named R. and they look just alike”; and “Otters are amazing because they do tricks in the water and are super fast.”

In both cases (and others like them), students used what they observed (bobcats in the shade, otters in the water) to make inferences about what other animals of that kind “like” (bobcats like being in the shade) or “do” (otters do tricks in the water). Students used their experiences (looking, being interested) to make inferences about animals or animal types in general: that they are pretty to look at, are interesting, or are cool. Framing these inferences as being about the animals rather than about the students indicated students’ attempts to generalize scientifically, even if they did not “succeed” at this time.

More “successful” Deduction/Reasoning entries combined inferences (or questions) about the animals with specific observed activities. Three exemplar posts of this type showed observed behaviors connected to inferences: “Two bobcats seen nervous and are pacing in the cage that is in the sun”; “The bobcat in the tree looks as if he might pounce at a small squirrel in the tree of its habitat”; and “We saw the bobcats resting a lot. 2 of the bobcats were resting in the trees.we didn’t think that they would climb that high one of ones that were in the tree moved of a little bit.I think that they were resting because there was one man who was leaf blowing on the dock maybe the bobcats were afraid maybe that’s why they were so far back on the ground and so far up in the trees.” Bobcats were pacing so they seemed nervous; a bobcat in a tree watching a squirrel “looks as if” he might pounce; and bobcats in secluded locations may have been afraid of a loud noise. In each case, an observed behavior was described and used as the basis for predicting future behavior, assessing the animal’s mental state, or explaining the motivation behind current activity.

In addition to recording what they saw, heard, felt, or measured, students used observations to generate research questions. Journaling is designed to allow students to engage in scientific discourse by preparing research questions and this was examined by focusing on the journal entries coded as Research Question (388 instances) and Question Title (88 instances). Some RQs were offered without context (“What do they eat?” “What is the lifespan of a bobcat”) but others were tied to observations; similar to the work on Deductions and Reasoning (above), Research Questions tied to observations demonstrated most clearly how evidence was being used to support the questions.

Students made observations and developed questions that, if answered, would help them make sense of what they observed. Sometimes this context was implicit: “How do bobcats keep there balanced” [implicitly connected to an observation of a bobcat doing something the student perceived to be precarious]; “How do bobcats get the grip when jump off a small branch” [implicitly connected to the student seeing a bobcat jump off a small branch]; “How do they get out of trees?????” [implicitly connected to observing a bobcat high in a tree with no visible means of descent]. In other entries the connection was drawn explicitly, showing students working hard to translate an observation into a research question: “How are the bobcat are going to get down because at first the bobcat was a little confused how to get down cause it was scared that it was going to Fall and break it’s legs”. Or, in this title/post pair, a question about an observed activity was expanded into three specific hypothesis-based questions about the activity’s purpose: “Why is the bobcat pacing” (title); “Is the bobcat thinking about somethingIs the bobcat is guarding somethingIs the bobcat protecting the the other bobcat.”

RQ3: Effect of multiple research sites

“i liked all the animals bit by far the panther was my secend faverite otters was my all time faverite!I liked the black bear.” [student journal]

During Phase 2 students entered observation data at multiple animal habitats in the museum rather than only at the bobcat habitat. Faced with completing observations at 10 habitats, students composed more journal entries at the habitats with the most active animals. The objects of the most entries were the otters (43 percent) and panthers (16 percent; see Table 3, Phase 2 distribution of entries by habitat). The otters are most likely to interact with observers by moving to the front of their habitat, and the panther habitat includes a juvenile animal who regularly interacts with enrichment toys (Figure 5, Panther with pickle enrichment). Many entries for these animals represented opinion and sharing experiences along with the usual observations and deductions/reasoning. Two exemplars of opinion journal posts (representative of this group of journal entries, not necessarily demonstrating “exemplary” scientific inquiry) are the otter entry “He is the cutest thing ever He will com right up to you and pose” and the panther entry “The panther is so cool ,young and the panther is playful with the pickle!Awesome!”). While the active animals attracted attention and led to more journaling, that additional journaling was not always focused on desired scientific activities such a observing, reasoning, or questioning.


Table 3: Phase 2 distribution of entries by habitat.
HabitatNumberPercentage of entries
Black bear66.38%
Red wolf66.38%
Grey fox55.32%



Panther with pickle enrichment
Figure 5: Panther with pickle enrichment.


In Phase 1, all journal entries were created at the bobcat habitat and no students misidentified it as another habitat. Although the app automatically records a habitat name when a student logs in to create an observation, students in Phase 2 who conducted observations at multiple habitats could, and did, create a journal entry about a different animal from the one recorded by the app. Data presented in Table 3 use the app-generated habitat identifiers but a new code (Wrong habitat) was added for Phase 2 analysis to indicate mismatches in journal entries and app-generated habitats. For example, this journal post about the black bears was entered into the Otter habitat: “On this fine day at the junior museum for my science trip, I best enjoyed the black bear! I honestly liked it because the male was sleeping and grooming itself and I just wanted to hug it put it in a ginormous purse and take it home. I feel as if the black bear is the heart of the museum. If you come to the junior museum I suggest the Black Bear!!!” The Wrong habitat code indicates a potential data quality problem that could affect students’ subsequent use of the data for drawing scientific inferences. When using the observations and journal entries for answering research questions, students could encounter data about an irrelevant animal (in answering a research question about bears, an entry about skunks labeled “Bears” would be analyzed), or they could miss relevant data (in answering a research question about skunks, an entry about skunks labeled “Bears” would be omitted).

Analyzing journal entries across multiple habitats revealed comparative entries in which students expressed both positive (e.g., “i liked all the animals bit by far the panther was my secend faverite otters was my all time faverite!I liked the black bear”) and negative (e.g., “The bobcat is sitting there like a lazy oaf and there is NO excitement. This is the worst animal yet”) comparative opinions. Negative opinions about the field trip such as “Finally this dumb things over!!!,” represent a new kind of journal entry absent in Phase 1. Negative opinions in Phase 2 may be the result of losing the scaffolding and personal connections created during student interactions with project team members in Phase 1. It may also reflect a declining sense of novelty in the process when student groups collected data in multiple habitats.



Discussion and implications

We asked the following three research questions in this study:

RQ1: In what ways do the students’ journal entries demonstrate features of scientific journaling?

RQ2: How often and in what ways do students engage in scientific practices, such as asking questions or developing inferences based on data, when using the journal?

RQ3: How does the inclusion of multiple data collection sites during a field trip shape student journal entries and titles?

In addressing RQ1, we found that students’ journal entries demonstrated the features of scientific journaling in these ways: students used the bare bones framework of the journal entry interface (title and content boxes), combined with their experiences in the classroom and the structured observation worksheets portion of the app, to inform their journal entry structure and content. This indicates that in further iterations of this app and in future design of scientific journal apps, adding or subtracting boxes, fields, and/or content prompts would change the content of what is entered so such changes must be considered and evaluated before being implemented. We found that students worked actively to create meaningful and functional titles for their entries. Students’ work creating titles indicated how students approach the observation process, especially the “meta” titles seen in Phase 2 (for example, “our question,” or “what I learned from the readings”). This allowed teachers to understand how students framed and described their entries; moving to a more streamlined interface by eliminating the title box would reduce this understanding. We found that students signed their work in the journal entries, despite the lack of a prompt to do so. This tendency could result in a loss of student privacy in a shared data environment so it may be useful to suggest that students omit their names or choose a team name as a pseudonym for their pair/group. This needs to be balanced against the students’ wish to demonstrate responsibility and get credit for their work, and the fact that teachers may find it useful for formative assessment to know whose entries were whose. A solution with audience- or user-specific privacy options may be better.

Students demonstrated features of scientific journaling by directing their posts to an indeterminate audience. This finding implies that suggesting a specific audience to students might help them frame their content. For example: “imagine you’re writing this for yourself to remind yourself later of what you saw and what you concluded from it”; “imagine you’re writing this for others who might wish to learn about this animal and habitat.” Students used verb tense to improve their narrative descriptions’ accuracy; this shows that journal entries can facilitate a more nuanced chronological observation than is allowed in the worksheet. While the worksheet registers one time and a list of activities/objects, the journal entry can reveal changes over time during a single observation (such as: bobcat was in tree, is on ground, paced for three minutes and is now resting).

In addressing RQ2 about scientific practices, we found that the journal entries indicated students’ engagement in scientific inquiry through the development of inferences based on observations in the following ways: students recorded and considered observations, often using terms from the worksheets in their journal entries. This implies that in further iterations of this app and in future design of scientific journal apps worksheet terms should be chosen to guide students to use scientifically correct vocabulary, and that it may be useful to analyze future journal entries for frequently occurring additional terms that students use.

While students’ opinions are not the intended outcome, students should not be prohibited from including opinions in their journal entries. Expressing opinions can be an important step during the process of learning to reason from observations and develop inferences. It is easy to think about scientific reasoning as binary (students are doing it or they are not), but journal entries can reveal where students are in the process of learning how to do it: from expressing opinions from a personal point of view, moving toward framing those opinions as being about the animal (in particular) or this type of animal (in general), or moving further to pairing inferences with specific observed activities. Analyzing journal entries from this perspective can provide formative feedback on students’ progress and guidance to teachers on what kind of support students need.

In addressing RQ3, we found that including multiple data collection sites (habitats) shaped journal entries and titles. Because many of the journal entries considered here are from Phase 1 and conducted exclusively in the bobcat habitat, and because there were other changes in the intervention between the two phases (as described above), the comparison with other habitats is limited. Based on the 645 posts analyzed we can draw preliminary implications. Students created more journal entries about animals that were most active and most interactive, but the journal entries about those animals did not always focus on observation/reasoning/questions aspects and were often opinion entries. Opinion entries can serve as a transition to learning (noted above), and this finding reinforces our conclusion that engagement does not automatically improve science learning outcomes without scaffolds that help students learn to reason (e.g., Osborne, 2010). Students need targeted support for scientific reasoning through interaction and engagement. The appearance in Phase 2 of journal entries with negative opinions about the field trip implies that interpersonal engagement with teachers and researchers (or museum staff) is important to keeping students interested and that a limit on the amount of journaling expected may improve outcomes. This analysis also revealed potential data quality problems when students self-report data (i.e., when a student creates an entry for the bear at the alligator habitat), and research is needed to assess how much these data quality problems affect students’ subsequent use of the data for creating and answering research questions.

Several factors limit this study and its findings. Although the findings are based on a relatively large corpus of journal entries collected over two periods, the study was not designed to be generalizable beyond the groups of students and the setting of this study. The overall project was not designed as a comparison between interventions with and without iPads, so we are not able to make specific assertions about a non-technology version of the intervention. The two phases examined represent slightly different deliveries of the Habitat Tracker curriculum: students and researchers focused on one habitat during Phase 1 and on multiple habitats during Phase 2; research staff directed the journaling activity during Phase 1, while the teachers directed journaling during Phase 2.




“How come a pet turkey cant fly? Would turkeys swim if you throgh them in the water? Are baby turkeys born with feathers? Do turkeys scratches hurt? ANWSER:You cant tell frome this field trip.” [student journal]

As a result of this analysis, we can draw conclusions about scaffolding, fostering engagement, understanding students’ reasoning process, and the potential for online and mobile journaling in science education.

When appropriate scaffolding is implemented, students can use scientific journaling to practice and display scientific practices such as developing scientific questions and using inferences from observations to answer those questions. For example, the quote above is from a journal entry composed after a field trip and illustrates a student identifying limitations in the data being collected (i.e., scientific questions that cannot be answered via the available data).

Observing “fun” phenomena such as playful animals can increase engagement in the overall activity and the longer journal entries that result can illuminate students’ processes in understanding science. Students’ positive attitudes toward science may be supported through personal interactions with enthusiastic and novel educators (e.g., program or museum staff in addition to the regular classroom teacher).

This study demonstrates that scaffolding is important in helping students do scientific writing. While the light scaffolding provided within the electronic journal shaped the students’ text somewhat, the more detailed scaffolding of the in-class curriculum and structured observation worksheets reappeared consistently in the journal entries.

The journal entries reveal details of the students’ processes of developing questions and inferences from observations. Students chose different ways to express their inquiry activities, helping them learn to use writing as a scientific practice. The finding that students used the phrases “I learned” or “I found out” to re-express knowledge they learned from reading or listening, and much less often used those phrases to express knowledge they accrued from direct observation, suggests that further research is needed to understand how students incorporate observations into their knowledge structures. One practice of science is the use of direct observation as a basis for knowing, and analyzing student journal entries can give insight into this process.

This study indicates that online and mobile journaling has potential to encourage and support collaboration. Developing students’ science collaboration skills is important, as science in practice is often a collaborative endeavor (National Research Council, 2012). Developing effective interventions that combine classroom science instruction with nature observations and technology tools is a way to engage with local resources and interest students in the practice of collaborative science. One method of fostering collaboration, and an area that needs more research, could be to help students develop scientific questions that encourage, and could be answered by using, collaborative journaling. End of article


About the authors

Michelle M. Kazmer is a professor in the School of Information at Florida State University. She researches distributed knowledge processes among various groups of people including dementia caregivers and older adults. Recent publications appear many places; her earliest publication in First Monday appeared in volume 5, number 9 (2000).
Direct comments to mkazmer [at] fsu [dot] edu or [@]michellekazmer everywhere else.

Nicole D. Alemanne is a Lecturer at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, in the Harrington School of Communication and Media. Her research interests include sociotechnical support for collaborative knowledge creation in cultural heritage institutions and interdisciplinary collaboration. Recent publications appear in Curator: The Museum Journal and Learning, Media & Technology.
E-mail: nicole [at] nicolealemanne [dot] com

Anne Mendenhall is a Learning Producer at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. She also serves as a board member for the Nevada Virtual Academy an online/blended public K-12 school that emphasizes in STEM. Her interests include the creation of distance learning environments in developing countries and coaching faculty in these countries in online and face-to-face collaborative and active learning strategies.
E-mail: anne [dot] mendenhall [at] gmail [dot] com

Paul F. Marty is a professor in the School Information within the College of Communication and Information at Florida State University. His research focuses on the evolution of sociotechnical systems, digital convergence and the evolving roles of information professionals, and involving users in the co-construction of distributed, digital knowledge. Recent publications appear in Library Trends, Journal of Learning Design, and Museum Management & Curatorship.
E-mail: Marty [at] fsu [dot] edu

Sherry A. Southerland is a professor of Science Education, the Director of the School of Teacher Education in the College of Education and Co-Director of the FSU-Teach Program at Florida State University. Her research focuses on barriers and affordances to student-centered science teaching and learning. Recent publications appear in Science, Science Education, and Journal of Research in Science Teaching.
E-mail: Ssoutherland [at] fsu [dot] edu

Victor Sampson is an associate professor in College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on the teaching and learning of science. Recent publications appear in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching and Science Education.
E-mail: victor [dot] sampson [at] utexas [dot] edu

Ian Douglas is Executive Director of the Institute for the Science of Teaching and Learning at Arizona State University. His research interests are in usability in technology design, knowledge management and learning organizations. Recent publications appear in Learning, Media & Technology and Journal of Iterative Design.
E-mail: Ian [dot] Douglas [at] asu [dot] edu

Amanda Clark is Natural Sciences Instructor at Chipola College. Her research interests include science education and the teaching of the nature and practices of science in elementary education.
E-mail: clarka [at] chipola [dot] edu

Jennifer Schellinger is a Ph.D. student in the College of Education at Florida State University where she is pursuing a degree in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in science education. Her research interests focus on developing educational programs that enhance state and national science standards in informal science settings.
E-mail: Schellingerjennifer [at]



Habitat Tracker is a research project of the Florida State University, and is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education (R305A100782). Thanks are due to the Tallahassee Museum, and to the schools, teachers, and students who have made this project possible.



1. Leslie and Roth, 2003, p. 8.

2. Harris, 2009, p. 117.

3. Wyeth and MacColl, 2010, p. 153.

4. Dickey, et al., 2007, p. 53.



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Appendix: Journal entry content codes [individual names are redacted].
CodeNumberPercentage of codesExemplar quotes and notes
Observation52124.82%Bobcat in cage sleeping 3 And 1Bobcat in cage sleeping. 11:052 bobcat climbing tree. 11:091 bobcat standing up in cage. 11:112 bobcat still in tree 11:12 The bobcat is an amazing,Z. and S. are observing these beautiful animals. The bobcat is very strong because it can climb trees also they are very active during the day.Zachary and I see a bobcat resting in a tree. I think that bobcats sleep in trees for protection. (also coded Student name, Opinion, and Deduction/reasoning)
Research question38818.48%How did the bobcat git in the tree.How do bobcats keep there balance in tree.
which activities do bobcats and panthers do most often at the tallahassee museum in the morning
Deduction or induction34716.53%There are two bobcats. They are in the shade. It is cold out side that is why we think they are resting in the trees. (also coded Observation)
II’m bboard said the girl bear.
Past Tense
30914.72%There were three bobcats
When we were observing the bobcats we saw them doing a bunch of different things!The first bobcat was in a tree on the right resting, walking and watching. Our second bobcat was in a tree on the top in the sun resting.
Opinion29814.20%1 is in the tree is licking long do bobcats live?the bobcat is strering at every body?Taking a poop.the bobcat just cimbe up the tree a little and it just licked itself.the bobcat is looking weird.why does the bobcat moves it’s tail a lot then Mose it tail a lot and just poup again .it seem to love resting. (also coded Observation, Observation — Past tense, Research question, and Deduction/Reasoning)
The grey foxes were all up in trees except one. Also It was really cool to watch them do what they do best,and they were not really moving a lot. (also coded Observation — Past tense)
Audience1266.00%Hello, my name is E. and my partners name is C.We are from [Our School]. Our bobcat didn’t do much but sit in a tree and groom it self. That is our entry. Goodbye ... (also coded Student name and Observation — Past tense)
The wolves next habitat over start to howl and the bobcat that is pacing stops. Maybe the bobcat was listening so hard that he had to stop!! That’s way cool, maybe you can find out more about it!! (also coded Observation and Deduction/Reasoning)
Express knowledge763.62%How many bobcats are there in all.I learned that bobcats like to old can a bobcat old are the bobcats at this much space do bobcats need. (also coded Research question)
Today We learned that bobcats like to sit in trees and not very much on the ground.they like to sit in shady spots in these trees.some like to rest and some like to watch the people go by.and bobcats also come in different sizes.They may look the same but are different. (also coded Deducation/Reasoning)
Student name743.53%By E. and J. Bobcats like to climb high in the trees.They also like to be in shady spaces.Bobcats are really interesting and are very cool.What and where do bobcats have their babys (also coded Deducation/Reasoning, Opinion, and Research question)
At first, I was excited to see the bobcat. But, it wasn’t very interesting to me. They were just laying in trees. — D. (also coded SE and Observation — Past tense)
Answer question351.62%There are 3 bobcats (question is posed in title of same entry: “How many bobcats are there”)
I think a bobcat can run about 40 miles (question is posed in title of same entry: “How long do a bobcat run”)
Text2341.62%(used when the post is a repetition of text the student read)
habitat,prefers wilder areas,reats in trees and thickets,dens in hollow logs,windfalls,other natural shelters.habitats,solitary,nocturnal,and,primarily rabits,also squerrels,rats,mice,small birds,occasoinally crippled deer.breeding,mates in mid winter.
Breed during Winter. Mostly eat rabbits,squirrels,rats,mice,small birds,occasionally crippled deer.Bigger than the size of house cats. They like to rest in the tree. Are calmer when in captivity, also are lazy in the wild. They eat three times a day in the museum. May catch squirrels for a snack.



Editorial history

Received 21 August 2015; revised 12 March 2016; accepted 18 March 2016.

Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

“A good day to see a bobcat”: Elementary students’ online journal entries during a structured observation visit to a wildlife center
by Michelle M. Kazmer, Nicole D. Alemanne, Anne Mendenhall, Paul F. Marty, Sherry A. Southerland, Victor Sampson, Ian Douglas, Amanda Clark, and Jennifer Schellinger.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 4 - 4 April 2016