Nature Journals: Science, Design, Calculations, and Curiosity

By Jeanne Knapp|June 15, 2018

Let’s think about life and learning. Journals are perhaps the most grounded (literally and figuratively!) tool we have for relationship building in life and for learning. Elegant, simple by design and accessible, nature journals are adaptive, easily created, inclusive, and cross-cultural. Each addition is an enhancement to record observable interest, increase understanding, and reflect the relevance of place to the writer. According to John (Jack) Muir Laws, “Things only become interesting when you are interested in them.” The activities associated with noticing, wondering, and noting your thoughts is a beautifully economic process for developing interest!

Let me be perfectly clear with this disclaimer: I am only about 100 pages (including many, many handwritten notes) into my nature journaling experience across seven months. I am not an expert, nor have I successfully achieved a regular practice or developed skills in getting the image of a tree, flower—or least of all flying bird—on paper in anything that could be called proportional. I am hesitant to share anything in my journals, and still cling to the repeated assurances of journaling mentors who say it’s not about a pretty drawing or a beautiful sketch, but rather about collecting information in ways that will help to recall, share, revisit, or clarify my observations. 

My name is Jeanne Knapp, and I am, as my parents and grandparents before me, a life-long Californian. Outdoor experiences from the Sierra Nevadas to the Central Coast formed my roots (place-based by nature). My adult life has been spent in Merced County, about equal distance from the two. I have served as an educator in various formal capacities: academic, guidance and career counselor, vice principal, college professor, and in support of Career Technical Education and STEM education at the county level. Outside of these various roles, I spent almost 15 summers as a wilderness and interpretive program volunteer with the Stanislaus National Forest Service. Most recently, I am happy to provide professional development workshops and training for Project WILD and Project WET materials, and through my small consulting business, nurture opportunities for formal and nonformal educational partnerships advancing my favorite topic: environmental literacy. A joyful commitment to this work is continually refreshed as I expand valuable, synergistic professional relationships and watch them begin to take shape. The deep truths of heart-tugging experiences shared with young grandchildren further strengthen my sense of responsibility.

Beginning fall of 2015, an informal network of educators, now called the Merced Environmental Literacy Collective (MELC), first began taking shape. What began as an early conversation between two partners (using the California Blueprint for Environmental Literacy as a guiding document) evolved. With encouragement from our Region 7 CREEC Coordinator, and by adapting the general concept of collective impact as a model for working together strategically, MELC now includes 143 community-based partners. Effective collaborations that support environmental literacy reflect both the broad and purposefully-designed MELC mission.

Our partners are educators in a variety of roles, including formal educators; public, private, and nonprofit organizations; natural resource agencies; and students and community members. Working together, we enhance, create, develop, and implement projects of shared interest. Our most successful projects are those where each partner contributes expertise around their own core interests, while sharing accessible resources and knowledge. The result is project and program implementation with little or no external cost through best use of available resources.

As a network, through various projects, MELC connects the knowledge of partners and organizations through common links around environmental literacy. Partners have connected with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) through meetings and workshops offered through the Fresno and Merced County Offices of Education and the CREEC Network. We highlight guest speakers and host agencies at meetings; build synergistic relationships between college teacher pre-service students and child development and parent groups; offer workshops, training, and implementation support on Project WET and Project WILD materials; and train and support post-secondary environmental literacy teams to provide the community with hands-on activities. MELC has embraced teaching and learning around climate change through workshops and the Climate Neutrality Curriculum Initiative of the University of California, and integrated the arts and sciences into Earth Day with the Merced County Arts Council and the City of Merced Parks and Community Services as they prepare for their Summer 2018 programs.

At first blush, the Blueprint for Environmental Literacy seems addressed to classroom teachers and administrators. However, at the heart of the document it becomes clear that environmental education is a shared responsibility. One MELC priority is advocating for teacher engagement with environmental education resources. All of our partners, albeit from different systemic perspectives, are passionate about environmental education. Together we strive to connect teachers and administrators with resources that are: 

  • valuedinclusively addressing and advancing student learning outcomes 
  • desirable: novel, interesting, engaging, and provides a solution to a challenge; and
  • accessiblesufficient capacity and resources to support engagement.

We recognize a sustained, inclusive, nimble, and strategic collaborative effort is required for environmental literacy to become an “essential element of a 21st century education in California”, as stated in the Executive Summary of the Blueprint, and specifically for students in the Merced County region. With CREEC and Ten Strands as sponsors, we facilitated a well-attended and well-received workshop on equity, access, and inclusion in environmental education for both formal and nonformal educators. Which brings us back to nature journals as one of those strategic collaborative efforts!

As a learning resource, journals are interdisciplinary, easily adjusted to grade level, hands-on, adaptable to different time frames and locations, and serve all users. Journaling in nature provides links to exploring the NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), and Cross Cutting Concepts (CCCs) through a visible process. Nature journals move students toward Performance Expectations (PEs) while empowering individual students within their classes and connecting them to outdoor environments—including supportive educational resources. These connections are reinforced by visits to the classroom, to field sites, and through use of technology.  

The momentum and energy behind nature journals for connecting with NGSS has been present in our region for at least a year now, and is growing. Recent past and future activities include:

  • A workshop held by the Merced County Office of Education in collaboration with UC Merced, with another in the planning phase
  • MELC hosted Andie Thrams to our January 2018 meeting for a workshop that culminated with a visit to the UC Merced Vernal Pools Nature Reserve
  • A two-day John Muir Laws NGSS–Nature Journal workshop offered by the San Joaquin County Office of Education. We are building a team in Merced to discuss additional workshop opportunities in our region
  • A group of MELC partners are in the planning stages of creating a common nature journal. The intention is to create a collaborative tool, including scaffolding for basic nature journal processes, which will be useful for teachers and students in and out of the classroom across our programs and activities

Nature, or “field” journals, come in all shapes and sizes and with a multitude of methods and styles all waiting for teachers and students to shape into their own personal experience. My first formal guidance in nature journals was with Andie Thrams, a California based visual artist and MELC January 2018 workshop presenter.

Andie’s approach emphasizes the individual in the nature journals, encouraging the writer to note personal “themes” that surface over time. She encourages sketches, notes, tracing and even rubbings as places to begin. This approach also encourages hands-on interaction with the surrounding environment, and I loved one of the perspectives she suggested when observing nature: growth and decay.

San Joaquin County Office of Education hosted a wonderful John Muir Laws nature journaling workshop in May of 2018. The workshop filled quickly, thanks to distribution through the CREEC newsletter and MELC partners, with great representation from both Mariposa and Merced Counties. The location, the Durham Ferry Outdoor Education Center, is an educational site of the San Joaquin County Office of Education. This is a wonderful site, with a large central building, additional classroom space, picnic grounds, hiking trails, a small pond, and access to the beautiful banks and beaches of the San Joaquin River.

John Muir Laws’ field guides and resource materials are recognized by the industry as top-notch; they do not compare, however, with Jack’s presence. He provides background information, contextualizes, discusses and demonstrates techniques, and then offers opportunities and prompts to practice the craft of nature journaling. He is committed and passionate about the value of deep, thoughtful investigation of the natural world around us. John shared his personal and professional science background and expertise as he melded visuals, graphs, measures, and relationships. An additional layer he brings as an educator is an understanding of our cognitive processes. And finally, Jack lead this two day workshop by articulating direct links to teaching and learning NGSS!  

In my experience, nature journaling encourages both interaction with one’s environment as a learning context and critical thinking skills. Feedback can be focused on what the observation was, and how the recorder chose to capture the information. Suggestions can support diverse ways of observing and capturing information in what may be a moment’s glimpse, and then revisiting with additional questions and reflection. Jack Laws reminded workshop participants that sometimes our brains are working to remember as much as possible, and filling gaps with what may have existed prior to an experience. We must recognize any memory is incomplete, and sometimes we will get it wrong. Improving over time and striving for clarity in the details is the nature of engineering, and why we rely upon the engineering design process.

This is also the nature of science, and why “discoveries” are determined by a community of practice. I am reminded of the 2017 California Environmental Education Foundation (CEEF) Board retreat hosted by Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore last year. During a tour, I was distracted from the explanation of the equipment when I noticed a shelf of what looked like large ledgers—probably 15 of them side-by-side. I asked about them, and the scientist opened the one on the end. It held the most recent entries, with the shelf of them reflecting decades of work. They document thoughts and ideas over time, not just of of one scientist, but the stream of scientists who have worked on related projects.

Documenting nature is not a new concept, and as with all things nature journals are evolving! MELC is in the early process of scheduling a future journaling workshop with Rosanna Ruiz, an expert and advocate for the use of nature and field journals. We will explore the integration of hand-drawn and written nature journals complimented by the use of technology. As an educator I am excited to sample the spectrum of possibilities. Inclusive environmental education, and fulfilling the potential and promise of environmental literacy in equitable and inclusive ways, will necessarily require a multitude of approaches.  

Jeanne Knapp
This article was written by Jeanne Knapp

Jeanne Knapp, Ed. D. is a consultant in developing relationships, particularly those advancing environmental literacy. Using models of collective impact among nested systems, she helps to shape activities among partners with common interests. Her energy is joyfully distributed among ongoing interests in the Central Valley and those of family in the Bay area.


  • Karen Crump

    Just a comment about when I did this work in 1996 with the Art Educators and K-12 teachers in Clark County
    Las Vegas. Way before Stem or STEAM, we had the Students out there with their art and science journals,
    when the new national science standards were published. Environmental Literacy has been around along time and we were all connected with the research and National Art Education Standards. Language Arts,
    Science , Art and Observing the world around us was getting the kids out of the classroom to a “place” where
    learning actually took place. Loved it and so did the teachers I trained, students were focused and motivated. Nothing better than placed based learning! California is finally catching up.
    Karen Crump
    Arts Coordinator
    University Preparatory Academy
    San Jose, Ca. 95125