By Nicole Webster, Forensic Anthropology Lab Educator
This summer, the National Museum of National History (NMNH) selected 25 local teen interns from underrepresented STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) populations to take part in the YES! (Youth Engagement Through Science) program. Throughout the summer portion of this program, each of the interns was paired with a scientist mentor at NMNH, Smithsonian National Zoological Park, or Smithsonian Gardens. The YES! intern projects ranged from tasks as varied as assisting the Department of Paleobiology with prep for isotope analysis to working as a zookeeper aide for Asia Trail. One of the common threads through all of the internships was that students documented their daily experiences and project research in field books. This day-to-day note taking would assist them by helping to develop their observation and scientific note taking skills and providing a vital record for the end of their summer when their work culminated in a poster showcase for Smithsonian staff at the NMNH Director’s Hall.
The YES! interns first delved into the world of field books by learning from the examples of Smithsonian scientists, both past and present. They worked together to identify key aspects of what should be included in daily notes by comparing sample field books from different departments in the museum and visiting the National Museum of Natural History Main Library to explore historic field books from the Department of Botany. Armed with this basic knowledge, and new personal field books, they first took to the public floor of NMNH to test their observation and note taking skills by using the museum as the "field".
After the YES! interns had built and demonstrated a baseline of practical and historical knowledge about field books, their scientist mentors took the lesson to the next level by sharing their personal field books and helping the interns to tailor their note taking to the students’ individual projects. Throughout the summer, their progress was tracked by weekly field book check-ins, making sure the students were recording data and experiences to the best of their abilities.
At the end of the summer portion of the program, the interns turned in their field books for review and shared their thoughts on the process. I was thrilled by both the openness and honesty in their writing, and the effort many of the students had made to record their experiences in their entirety. Those who committed themselves to the experience gained a newfound respect for the importance of field books in science.
YES! interns were asked to anonymously provide feedback at the end of the program. The comments below from two participants illustrate just how important the students' field books became over the summer:
"It was a good use of my time during my internship, because I could reflect on my work and experience everyday. I was also able to write down any idea that came to me."
"I liked my field notebook because it has made me feel official and professional. It helped me keep things organized and updated. In addition, I recorded my ideas for future experiments and projects."
Every YES! intern adopted their own personal style for recording their experiences. From the botany intern that selected a specimen daily to describe in further detail because it had “caught their eye,” to the Insect Zoo intern that recorded not only the behavior of the invertebrates he was caring for, but also those of the museum visitors. Students approached the design of their field books differently, some structuring their field notes for systematic entries, others using more of a diary format. It was intriguing to see how students took their training and remodeled what they had learned to fit their individual project, providing a unique window into the work that encompassed all their summer experiences.