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Coverof Carl Sagan's Notebookd from the University of Chiago
Carl Sagan's Notebook from the University of Chicago, circa 1955-56

Expanding the Definition of Science Notebooks with Sagan, Bell, and Wright

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This post is by Jacqueline Katz, the 2022-2023 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

I have utilized science notebooks or journals in various ways in my high school biology and chemistry classroom. Regardless of the iterations–lab notebooks, journals, interactive notebooks–I have felt as though the notebook lost its purpose as the year progressed. It oftentimes became a checklist of items for students to complete and submit for a grade. But why? I asked this question along with my students. Recently I have found some evidence to address the question of why in the Library of Congress’ digital collections.

I started by reading through several notebooks from The Seth Macfarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive. On three pages in Sagan’s notebook from his undergraduate study at the University of Chicago, he vividly recounts a dream he had on August 10th, 1955. Sagan ends his retelling by asking questions and proposing connections:

  • “Could flying dreams be related to a primitive desire to transcend the danger of falling?”
  • “Application to warfare, entertainment, psycho-analysis + therapy…”

What would your students think of this entry in a scientific notebook? What value does the retelling of a dream add to the scientific process?

Handwritten pages from Carl Sagan's notebook
Carl Sagan’s University of Chicago notebook, 1955-56

Once I realized that there was more to be uncovered in science notebooks than data and procedure, I went to see what else I could find. One of Alexander Graham Bell’s notebooks seems to be an alphabetized scrapbook. He collected pieces of information about various topics from newspapers and the writings of others and alphabetized them. This page features information on “paste blacking,” preventing beer from growing flat, and batteries, while the next page highlights the main ideas from a paper on the history of the Church of England. How did these nuggets of information contribute to Bell’s scientific process? What connections can your students find between these pages and work Bell is known for, if any?

Notebook from Alexander Graham Bell. Includes handwritten notes and clippings
Undated Notebook from Alexander Graham Bell

My last collection was the Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers. One of Wilbur Wright’s notebooks includes detailed observations that he made of birds in his environment. One entry reads: “Hawks are better soarers than buzzards but more often resort to flapping because they wish greater speed.” Why would Wright dedicate a 50-page notebook to observations of nature if his plan was to build a machine? How might these notes have informed Wright’s scientific process?

Notebook from Wilbur Wright
Notebook from Wilbur Wright, circa 1900-1901

Each of these examples shows the observations, reflections, and questions of famous scientists. This made me think that the protocol that applies to primary source analysis could also guide the use of notebooks in my science classroom. I wonder what observations, reflections, and questions students would generate if given the opportunity to pull from all parts of their lives—including any observations, conversations, or questions that came up during the day, even those that may not initially associate with studying science. If students struggle with what to write, I will provide prompts like: What did you dream about last night? What did you see on your trip over to school this morning? What did you do in history class yesterday? Once or twice a unit, I would challenge students to connect their notebook entries to their construction of scientific knowledge. For example, how did an observation they noted about an activity in gym class contribute to their understanding of cellular respiration in biology.  By framing science notebooks to be sources of wonder, students will have the opportunity to make interdisciplinary connections like Sagan, Wright, and Bell. My answer to the question, “Why have students maintain a notebook?” is now: to document and enrich their journeys of knowledge construction.

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Comments (2)

  1. This is so interesting! Thank you! Terrific examples! I think sharing such work in the classroom could tease good discussion and certainly good thoughts.

  2. I think that the examples reflect that the “notebook” isn’t strictly an experimental log. It’s a place to capture ideas, some may not be directly relevant. These days, those random thoughts might be separate little files on a computer, although there is value in having it all in one place.

    In a classroom setting, though, it tends to be an “assignment” and there’s an implication that it needs to follow a particular form, upon which you’ll be graded. This is reinforced in things like science fairs where there is a requirement (or desire) for display of the experimental notebook.

    Some of this probably comes from the historical desire to establish priority – bound notebook, numbered and dated pages, signatures, witness signatures for particularly significant results. I used to work in a place where notebooks were bound, but had multiple copy sheets, and you’d tear out the sheets and they’d be filed, leaving the original bound in the book. But that might be a 19th and 20th century artifact of legal precedent.

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