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Taking it Outside: Science, Writing, and Students

In early July 2006, Alaskan teachers joined the ASWC teacher leader, Sondra Porter, and the Murie Science and Learning Center's Jessica Brillhart for an exploration of science and writing in Denali National Park. The original seminar was called "Science and Writing in the Heart of Denali."   The teachers engaged in a field-based course that focused upon the natural history of Denali including the large mammals, birds, and plants of the tundra and taiga ecosystems, as well as current scientific research in the park. The teachers learned about the literacy of science by keeping scientific journals and writing procedures, rules, guidelines, essays, charts, and questions that can be expanded into both fiction and non-fiction writing.

Over the years, this course has evolved, but the focus remains on developing teachers' skills in observing and identifying the plants and animals of Denali National Park while integrating science and writing.
We now include exploration of means to connect students to place and ways to deal with what has been labeled "nature deficit disorder."

2012 dates are June 18-21.  For more information, check the official site at Alaska Georgraphic for specifics on how to register at

As a direct result of taking this course, Kristin Hathhorn and Mark Battalon, teachers from the Lake and Peninsula School District on the Alaska Peninsula prepared a lesson plan that engaged their students in both descriptive and artistic writing. Their students would like to share their work with you.

Science Writing in the Heart of Igiugig

By Kristin Hathorn and Mark Battalon

Mark and I were inspired by a course we took over the summer (Science Writing in the Heart of Denali, sponsored by ASWC and the Murie Science and Learning Center led by Sondra Porter and Jessica Brillhart) to create a nature-based writing unit for Igiugig School. During the first week of school, we set aside a couple of hours each afternoon to take our students outside, observe their natural surroundings through scientific eyes, and then complete short writing assignments. Most activities were adapted from Joseph Cornell’s Sharing Nature with Children, and for most assignments, older students were paired with those younger. Here is a smattering of their accomplishments:

Speculation of Igiugig 20 years from now…

In twenty years I believe Igiugig will have grown to the size of Iliamna and will have paved roads. There will be more houses and fewer trees because they will need more space for construction. There will also be fewer animals because more people will hunt for food which might cause some animals to become extinct. Also, the mine will offer lots of jobs, attract more people to Alaska, and will destroy a big chunk of nature. The air will become polluted from all the vehicles driving around.

By Jeremy Salmon, age 14

I think Igiugig will either grow in population or become a ghost town. If it grows, we will have a bigger school, probably a dock near the lake and river, more roads, and a bigger town. Maybe people who live here now might come back – who knows? There may be a bridge across the river.

By April Hostetter, age 14

In 20 years Igiugig will be bigger. The school will also be bigger. There will be more hunters and fishermen. The animal and fish population will be smaller. There will be more trees. Igiugig will have a baseball field and the gym will be bigger.

By Shaun Andrew, age 9

Observation from 6 feet, 2 feet, and through a magnifying glass…

The rock was speckled like a deer. It was filthy and dusty. It weighed about 10 ounces. It had some rain drops on it, but it was mostly dry. The peppered rock was bumpy and rough. The rock was a boulder to the mouse we saw and was heavy to Fewina.

By Tess Hostetter, age 10; and Fewina Zharoff, age 6

From six feet, the birch wood looked like a forest and had the colors of grey, orange, brown, and red. It looked like a rainbow when it is raining. The birch trees were kind of moldy and old looking. Then Gregory and I moved up closer to the tree. It looked skinny with black spots, and a little wet from this distance.

By Jackie Woods, age 17; and Gregory Zackar, age 8

Our mushroom had white spots, and some others that were red, yellow and orange. The stem of the mushroom was white and had little lines on it. There was a bug on the top that looked like an umbrella. To the bug, the mushroom looked like the sun. There were water droplets on the mushroom. It smelled nasty and it was a gilled mushroom. That was our mushroom!

By Alicia Zackar, age 14; and Camille Andrew, age 6

I pushed and ate my way through the luscious, moist and extremely root-filled moss I call home. Mushroom roots barricaded my pathway while I breathed the fresh, wet soil scent the moss held like a sponge. Finally, I reached my destination and could see the tiny forest of mushrooms and miniature trees. I crawled through the tiny, but to me, life-size trees, only to find myself crowded by pine needles. A being from above would say my fluffy, soft home looked like a green hedge hog. This microscopic wet land proves to be home not only to colorful plants and mushrooms, but also slimy and slippery worms like me.

By Mary Hostetter, age 16, and Dolly Ann Zharoff, age7

Our first observation was from six feet; we quickly realized the rock was dirty and bumpy. The rock varied in colors, about fifty percent was black and the other half was brown. The large rock was chipped and cracked in several places. The rock was kind of dry, but mostly wet. Preston thought the irregular shape looked like a head or a shoe. Preston advanced four feet towards the rock where he noticed it looked like a Hershey’s kiss with the top bit off. Its immense size looked heavy. We also noticed that the surface was porous and wet. From this distance, it became apparent that it was black inside the chipped rock and light-brown outside. We whipped out our magnifying glasses and found that the light brown was striped and black. We also noticed the rock was layered and had mashed grass in the cracks. Through the magnifying glass, the raindrops appeared to be large puddles. Preston thought the rock looked rough and brittle.

By Jonathan Salmon, age 17; and Preston Chukwak, age 11

From far away the moss looked like a hill covered in furry grass, but under the magnifying glass, the moss was like a miniature forest with grassy green trees and spiked bushes that looked like sea urchins.

By April Hostetter, age 14; and Sharolynn Zackar, age 11

What am I?

I am one of the many species that live around me in my watery home, I glide gracefully through the murky, cloudy water to find my meals. I swim hurriedly away from larger animals pecking at me from above. Size doesn’t matter to what I am; we can be less than an inch or up to two inches or bigger. I have neutral colors that decorate my back like a butteryfly’s. My shell, if you can call it that, is shiny and hard. My cousins on land take horrendous bites that are painful and itchy. Older species of my kind grow wings and are able to leave our water-logged world. Some, not from Alaska, are more decorated and can grow very large, not just in height.

By Mary Hostetter, age 16

Vertical Poems

Fast swimming up the river
In the swift water
Swinging their tails
Hopping the stream to get to the lake
If they don’t
Not a single fish will come back next year
Go fishing

By Jackie Woods, age 17

Meandering down the trail, I looked
Underneath the large spruce trees to discover a
Small world of blossoming fungi.
Harsh and torrid rains despair,
Robbing the ground of its dehydration -
Orbiting insects fly to cover, mini
Oval raindrops fall from the sky, as the
Mushroom inhales the delicious, moist air.

By Mary Hostetter, age 16

Whispering quietly in your ear
Always flowing down the river
Temptation stirs as I stare into the
Everlasting coldness and its
Refreshing taste that quenches my thirst

By Jeremy Salmon, age 14

Little flowers
Open up for
Every year
Returning to our land

By Alicia Zackar, age 14

Radiant fields of
Everlasting beauty, the flower
Elegant petals
Emboldens its
Dreary surroundings

By April Hostetter, age 14

Lesson Plan: Science Writing in the Heart of Igiugig

Target group: Igiugig Students: 14 students, grades 1-12 Lake and Pen School District



SC 1.13 Asks questions about nature and the environment
SC 1.15 Participates in teacher designed group investigation
SC 1.16 Explains a project with pictures and spoken words and describes three specific things about an object/event
SC 2.18 Records simple observations
SC 2.19 Summarizes work orally and in simple writing
SC 3.6, 4.15 Asks questions about classmates’ science work
SC 3.9, 4.17 Explains investigations based on evidence


WR 2.1, 2.11 Uses letters to write simple words, sentences, and begins to create writing
2.12 portfolio
WR 3.1, 3.5 Writes simple sentences, emerging characteristics of 6-trait writing,
3.9, 3.6, 3.11 uses adjectives and adverbs, adds samples to writing portfolio
WR 4.1, 4.9, Demonstrates knowledge of 6-traits, begins to develop note-taking skills
4.11, 4,12 adds to writing portfolio
WR 5.1, 5.8, Demonstrates knowledge of 6-traits, begins to develop note-taking skills
5.10 adds to writing portfolio
WR6.1, 6.6, Demonstrates knowledge of 6-traits, begins to develop note-taking skills
6.8 adds to writing portfolio
WR7.1, 7.6, Demonstrates knowledge of 6-traits, begins to develop note-taking skills
7.11 adds to writing portfolio
WR 8.1, 8.7 Demonstrates knowledge of 6-traits, begins to develop note-taking skills
8.9 adds to writing portfolio


To engage students in outdoor activities to enhance scientific observation and writing skills


Students will improve scientific observation, descriptive writing, and narrative writing skills

Time for lesson

Lessons will be completed in four sessions of two hours, fifteen minutes each

Materials needed

  • All students will need writing notebooks (Rite in the Rain preferred). Older students need watches, magnifying glasses.
  • Teachers need Sharing Nature with Children as a reference: Cornell, Joseph. Sharing Nature With Children. Nevada City, CA: Dawn Publications, 1998


This lesson is planned for Igiugig School, made up of fourteen students grades 1-12. Older students will be paired with younger students with older students being responsible for their younger partners. Two teachers will lead the activities.

Activity (step by step):

Day One: Focus on naked eye observation, descriptive writing. (scientific)


  1. Prepare a tray of 10 items collected from within easy walking distance of the school.
  2. Explain that the student pairs will have 25 seconds to view the items. They will then have 5 minutes to go outside and collect 10 identical items. Students begin activity.
  3. After 5 minutes, blow whistle as signal for student pairs to return to classroom.
  4. Take out items one at a time - see which groups found similar items. Explain a little bit about each. (Cornell, 48).


Explain students will choose one item to observe closely and write about. They will return to the place where they found their chosen item to complete this assignment. Go over descriptive vocabulary, simile, metaphor, etc. (They may have to return the item to its spot if another item does not exist or they may go to another place where an identical item exists.) Make sure each pair has a watch and magnifying glass -older students lead this activity and keep track of time.

  1. Student pairs observe item from 6 feet - 5 minute write.
  2. Student pairs observe item from 2 feet - 5 minute write.
  3. Student pairs observe item close up using magnifying glass - 5 minute write.
  4. Return to class and share one writing.

Day Two: Focus on interpretation, creative writing/narrative. (artistic


  1. Give student pairs a scavenger list of approximately 25 items. Use Cornelll’s list (pg. 85) or create your own. Set one hour time limit and make sure older students have watches. Students go outside to collect items.
  2. After an hour students reconvene in classroom. Ask each group to share several of their best finds with the rest of the group. Discuss, add information, stories, etc.
  3. Choose an object and discuss why it is the way it is and how it fits in to its surroundings. Student groups choose one object and discuss the same information with the group.


  1. As a group, discuss what students think Igiugig will be like 10 years from now. On board write title Igiugig 2016 and during discussion jot down words/phrases that may help students with their writing assignment.
  2. Student pairs write what Igiugig will be like in 10 years.

Day Three: Observation through the senses, descriptive writing (scientific)


  1. To prepare for this activity place about 20 man-made objects along a short trail. Items should be within 4 feet of the edges of the trail, place some so they are fairly easily visible, others should be difficult to see. Direct students to walk the trail and keep track of how many items they see. Send out students at intervals and when they return students tell the teacher how many items they saw. Tell them the total number of items (or the fraction they have found) and send them out again. (Cornell, 42)
  2. After several tries, walk with students along trail and discuss which items are easy or difficult to see and why. Focus on the importance of camouflage and coloring.


  1. Explain students will find something camouflaged within easy walking distance of the school. Pairs will describe their finding, but must be careful NOT to name it in their writing. Place a time limit on this activity (30 minutes?) and make sure older students have watches.
  2. Students return to classroom and read their descriptions. Other groups try to decide what it is.

Day Four: Sound and quietude, poetry writing (artistic)


  1. Choose one student to be the "sleeping giant". The giant closes his/her eyes and goes to sleep while the other students form a circle (about 25 feet away) around the giant and make some noise (not too loud). Give a signal for the students to move toward the giant as quietly as possible. If the giant hears a noise, he/she points to the student who made the noise and that student must freeze. The first student to touch the giant without being caught becomes the next giant. Play several times. Afterward discuss what kind of noises are easiest to hear. (Cornell, 106.
  2. Walk down by the river and have students sit quietly. Explain the student pairs will listen carefully for 10 seconds and then write what they heard for the remaining 50 seconds of each minute. This will be repeated 5 or 6 times. Have half the students move to a different location slightly out of hearing distance. After the activity have pairs share what they heard.
  3. Take the students on a completely silent walk for 15-30 minutes. Before embarking make sure all students agree to remain completely silent and move as quietly as possible.


  1. Return to the classroom and discuss what students observed/heard during the silent walk. Student pairs write words/phrases of their observations (5 minutes).
  2. Introduce vertical poems. Students each choose a word that captures the feeling of the silent walk (or a special place around Igiugig). The word is written vertically and then the letter of each line forms the beginning of each line of a poem. Provide an example or two.
  3. Students write and illustrate poems.

Test for understanding/evaluation

Student work will be assessed as advanced, proficient, developing, or emerging using LPSD standards listed above.

Follow-up: Exemplary student work will be displayed on school bulletin boards and in the monthly Igiugig village newsletter.