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Teacher Roadmaps - Sketching and Drawing in Science Class

Why Do It in Your Classroom?

Sketching or drawing is a tool to:

  • develop students' observation skills
  • develop students' visual literacy skills
  • make connections between observations and ideas
  • encourage creativity
  • enhance inclusive engagement
  • practice representing and communicating ideas
  • reveal student understandings and misconceptions

Science literacy interacts with other literacies, including visual literacy. There is growing documentation about the value of drawing to learn in science. A recent 2011 article by Ainsworth and colleague is a helpful starting place if you are interested in a synopsis of the evidence-based research. In a nutshell, the act of visualization requires students to observe, integrate understandings, compare, and reason, therefore enhancing a student's ability to think about and discuss scientific concepts.

Drawing can allow students to find their voices in a different format, articulate their new knowledge, and empower them to communicate with each other in spite of their socioeconomic, racial, cultural, and learning differences.

What Resources Do You Need?

The materials list can be as simple as:

  • pencil, erasers, rulers
  • paper (in student lab notebook or science journals)
  • magnification tools (MagEyes, hand lenses, microscopes, slides)
  • plant materials: fresh flowers or fruit or leaves or stems

Depending on time, curricular connections and funds for resources, the materials list could expand. Inexpensive options are to offer multiple media options such as pens, colored pencils, water colors, or acrylic paints. Tracing paper, drawing frames, tape scissors are helpful if you choose to expand on the art skills.

Students enjoy seeing examples of illustrations, such as The Art of Natural History or The Art of Plant Evolution. The examples can be effective ties between historic and modern science practices and understandings. Images of famous botanical illustrators such as Maria Sybilla Merian could be used to address stereotypes of who scientists are.

When To Do It -- How Often, For What Purpose?

How would you scale your drawings?

This is one prompt Allison Landry has used for drawing as part of a C-Fern life cycle study. Her high school students typically answer along the lines of:

  • Observe plates at the same magnification each time
  • Place a ruler under the microscope and measure how wide the view is and use that as a scale

Another reflection prompt she has used is: Did your drawing improve your observational skills?

Yes, it did increase observational skills. Little, unnoticeable details became apparent when drawing. By drawing the microscopic ferns and the plates, we were more familiarized with the anatomical structures.

Botanical drawing can fit in many different types of science classes that cover life cycles, anatomy, classification, ecology, and reproduction. There is no single or right answer on when to include drawing as part of your science class. Below are a few suggestions. Try out a few simple activities and assignments first and build on these over time.

  • Use a short, ungraded drawing activity at the start of a new unit to see student thinking about the topic. Use a prompt, such as Draw, as if explaining to a friend, how water moves through a plant's leaves. Or have students read a piece of text and draw what they took away from the passage. Review the student drawings overnight to gauge student understandings and misconceptions.
  • If you allow your students to document their laboratory or field studies with photographs, have them make some drawings first in order to hone their observation skills. This can be particularly valuable when students make observations using a microscope and scale is essential to the visual representation.
  • Ecology and environmental science classes might be especially well suited for having your students keep illustrated nature journals. Throughout the entire course students could be required to make weekly entries
  • Have a sketching or drawing assignment as part of a laboratory or field study. For example, students using C-Fern or Rapid Cycling Brassica to study plant life cycles could be required to make drawings of stages and note their features. Students taking on the celery challenge could be assigned to draw cross sections of celery stalks before and after experimental treatments to create bending.
  • Encourage students to make notes on their drawings and revise them based on their new understandings as their study progresses. At the close of the unit include reflection questions about the drawing process as well as comprehension questions about the content.

How To Do It?

Neither you nor your students have to be artists! Make it clear in the drawing assignment expectations that the quality of the observations not the artistic technique is what matters and what will be evaluated.

General guidelines for using student drawing as effective learning tools include:

  • Students include written descriptions with drawings. These written entries are kept brief, yet are complete enough to encourage thoughtful reflection.
  • Students are guided to observe details, from different views.
  • Students include scientific terminology (where appropriate), as well as scientific names.

Perhaps you are fortunate to have a colleague in the art department at your school or local institution. This is a wonderful opportunity to team up for a richer science-art collaboration and teach techniques such as blind contour drawing, perspective, coloring.

Sample rubrics to evaluate student drawing

These can be simple or detailed rubrics depending on your learning goals and assignments.

A simple rubric could include categories for 1) Completeness of drawings, labels, and notes; 2) Presentation; 3) Reflection.

A detailed rubric by Carol Packard of Sisters Middle School

Sketching Assignment (gr. 6-12)

Name: ___________________Period:_________

Check the items that will be graded on your sketching assignment. Each is worth 5 points on a scale 0-5 (0=no evidence to 5=exceeds expectations).
Total points for assignment: __________


__________Name of item (identify with correct name and spelling)
__________Date (Day and Date)
__________Time of day (hour, minute AM or PM)
__________Place (in classroom or other location)
__________Lighting conditions (artificial inside light or natural from window or outside light)
__________Make all of the above easy to find, correctly spelled and neat.


__________Try for likeness of the object (looks very much like it).
__________Show details of parts (completeness: including observation of smaller parts).
__________Use color (used various colored pencils, included shades and depth).
__________Include the true habitat in the background (real or researched and created).
__________Make all the above easy to view. Not too small or large. Centered.


__________Label of all the parts that are sketched, easy to identify with arrows.
__________Indicate the measurement in Metric and Standard. Height, width, weight if possible.
__________Indicate any part of the sketch that is life-sized "Life-sized" If magnified, indicate the strength of magnification
__________Make notes about the color (does it change during the sketch? Etc.)
__________Make notes and descriptions of unusual things you observed.
__________Make notes about connections you made about the object to other things in the sketch or outside.
__________Write questions you have about the object.
__________All of the above are easy to find and neatly written with correct grammar.


See also the Sketching and Drawing Resources for Students and Mentors

Science Sketching and Drawing Resources and References

Jeanne Debons and Carol Packard: Bringing Art to Science Presentation

ArtPlante: Connecting artists, naturalists, and educators

Podcast with Ainsworth about Drawing to Learn Science

Picturing to Learn

Botany and Art, and their roles in conservation. Smithsonian in your Classroom Spring 2011.

Martin, R., and M. Thurstan. 2008. Botanical Illustration Course: With the Eden Project. Batsford.

O'Malley, T. and A.R. W. Meyers (eds). 2008. The Art of Natural History: Illustrated Treaties and Botanical Paintings, 1400-1850. Yale University Press.

Brafman, D., and S. Schrader. 2008. Insects and Flowers: The Art of Maria Sibylla Merian. J. Paul Getty Museum.

Kress, J. W. and S. Sherwood. 2010. The Art of Plant Evolution. Royal Botanic Garden, Kew.

Ainsworth, A., Prain, V., and R. Tytler. 2011. Drawing to Learn Science. Science 333(6046): 1096-1097.

Baldwin, L. and I. Crawford. 2010. Art Instruction in the Botany Lab: A Collaborative Approach. Journal of College Science Teaching 40(2): 26-31.

DeCristofano, Carolyn. 2007. Visualization: Bridging scientific and verbal literacies. Connect. Volume 21, No. 1 (September/October).

Dirnberger Joseph M., Steven McCullagh, and Tom Howick. 2005. Writing & drawing in the naturalist's journal: Reviving the tradition of the naturalist's journal as an effective learning tool. Science Teacher 72(1):38-42.

Gallas, K. 1991. Art as Epistemology: Enabling Children to Know What They Know. Harvard Educational Review 61(1): 40-51.

Kose, S. 2008. Diagnosing student misconceptions: using drawing as a research method. World Applied Sciences Journal 3(2): 283-293.


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NSF_Logo.jpg This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #2010556 and #1502892. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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