Quick capture and questions: A curriculum for introducing natural history through field journaling

Freya Chay, Hannah Black, and Richard NevleDownload PDF | Volume 12, 2018

In spring of 2017, two of us (HB and FC) met on a weekend-long class in the Eastern Sierra Nevada taught by Richard Nevle. The class combined an exploration of regional geology, ecology, and environmental history with guided drawing exercises and field journaling. Much of the weekend was spent with journals open and eyes on the mountains, granite, Jeffrey pines, junipers, tufa towers, and small mysteries encountered along the way. The questions and observations we recorded in our journals produced beautiful records of the weekend, but we also noticed how naturally the sketching and writing invited us to move slowly and notice things deeply. We delighted in this new way of moving through a landscape and at the conversations that arose as a result – and we wanted more!

Fleischner (2005) defines natural history as “a practice of intentional focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy.” Field journals are an effective tool not only for well-practiced natural historians (Canfield 2011, Laws 2016) but for those just starting to explore natural history as a more complete way to engage with the places a person may study, inhabit, and travel through. Incorporating numbers, words, and illustrations to capture experiences in the field prompts one to see instead of look (Edwards 1999), to wonder rather assume (Eisner 2002), and to discover rather than just learn (Baldwin and Crawford 2010, Baldwin 2017).

Although field journals can serve importantly as personal or scientific records, we were most interested to introduce field journaling as a tool to deepen engagement and connection with a place (Baldwin 2017) and, along the way, “affirm our sense of beauty and wonder” (Fleischner 2011). We were also interested to explore the deliberate creation of a community of practice (Wenger 1999), essentially a group of people who care about something they do and learn to do it better as they interact regularly.

In the fall of 2017, we created a class that would expose students from all parts of Stanford’s campus to the tool of field journaling. We developed the class around the following stated objectives:

  1. Students will learn to use a field journal to capture observations, questions, and insights in a format that is useful for future observation and synthesis.
  2. Students will acquire skills necessary to capture field observations in watercolor.
  3. Students will build ability to use observation as a basis to inform rich questions about natural systems on scales from lichens to landscapes.
  4. Students will understand the value of putting their observations in conversation with observations of their peers and experts in the field, and through the class build a community of natural history practice.
  5. Students will develop a personal relationship with the living and nonliving natural features of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.

We advertised the class with the following listing:

“This course makes space to use art as an entry point for closer observation, deeper curiosity, and better understanding of natural systems. With a series of guest experts in art, science, and the practice of natural history, we will investigate Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve through a number of lenses, microscopic to macroscopic. In each session, we will venture into the preserve to explore how field journaling, quick capture watercolor, and expressive language can foster insight and sense of connection. Come build a community of practice with us!”

Elements of the Class

Outlined below are the details of the class as it was offered during Stanford’s 10-week winter quarter in 2018. We have organized information under relevant sub-headings along with reflections about what worked well and what didn’t. Table 1 gives a week-by-week outline of guests, foci, and readings, and Appendix A provides links to all course documents including the syllabus, budget, and drafts of weekly learning plans.

Table 1. Course outline

Guest (expertise) Focus Readings / Assignments
1 Mattias Lanas (art practice) Field journal introduction + using watercolors: basic toolkit Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: bullfrog excerpt (Dillard 2011, p. 7-8); Introduction to Nature Journaling video (Laws, min. 6:20 – 12:50); Keeping a Nature Journal: Entering Observations (Leslie and Roth 2000)
2 John Farnsworth (literary natural history) Using Words Beyond Solitude: Notes from the Field (Farnsworth 2018); The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling (Laws 2016, p. 95-97)
3 John Muir Laws (illustrated field journaling) Growth Mindset Journal examples / inspiration
4 Katherine Preston (botany) Exploring Plant Adaptations
5 Exploring Geology and Landscape Laws Guide: Make a Map (Laws 2016, p. 38); Laws Guide: Cross Section of a View (Laws 2016, p. 39); Laws Guide: Block Landscape (Laws 2016, p. 40-41); Laws Guide: Landscapitios (Laws 2016, p. 268-269); Laws Guide: Rocks are Edges and Planes (Laws 2016, p. 270-273); Laws Guide: Oak Woodland Step by Step (Laws 2016, p. 278)
FT Field trip to The Foster, an exhibition of Tony Foster’s watercolor journeys.
6 Caroline Daws (mycology) Exploring Lichen and Fungus Lab Girl: Wood and Knots (Jahren 2016, p. 104-105); Gathering Moss: excerpts (Kimmerer 2003, p. 14-20, 158-159)
7 Mattias Lanas(art practice) Using watercolors: representing water, clouds and sky Common Ground: Very Like a Whale (Finch 1994, p.99)
FT Field trip to Hopkins Marine Station and an exploration of tidepools.
8 Journaling Laws Guide: Vary Your Structure, Vary Your Thinking (Laws 2016, p. 62); Laws Guide: Sketching with Water Soluble Pens (Laws 2016, p. 131); Laws Guide: Trees, Far and Near (Laws 2016, p. 250-263)
9 Richard Nevle (geology, ecology, teaching) Finding patterns, making connections This World: The Wakening (Macker 2015, p.99); This World: Ode to the Boulders in the Orchard (Macker 2015, p. 94); Laws Guide: Sketching Mountains (Laws 2016, p. 274-276); Laws Guide: Splendor in the Grass (Laws 2016, p. 277); Laws Guide: Coniferous Forest Edge Step-by-step (Laws 2016, p. 279)
Mini-Exhibition of student journals, open to the public.
10 Journaling + Wrap-up reflection


Where: Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve is located near Stanford University’s main campus in the rolling terrain of the Santa Cruz Mountains’ eastern foothills. The preserve’s varied geology, topography, and biodiversity provide a natural laboratory ideally suited for teaching and learning about natural history.

Who: Students. Based on available funding and transportation constraints, we were able to enroll only 11 of the 43 students who applied or expressed interest in the course. Students ranged from undergraduate freshmen to second year master’s students and included majors from nine departments and interdisciplinary programs (Table 2).

Table 2. Breakdown of students who applied and enrolled in the course, excluding students who formally expressed interest but did not apply.

Applied (n = 36) Enrolled (n = 11)
Graduate 11% 18%
Senior 22% 27%
Junior 31% 18%
Sophomore 14% 18%
Freshman 22% 18%
Male 25% 27%
Female 75% 73%
Engineering 31% 22%
Natural Science 38% 33%
Humanities 19% 22%
Social Science 12% 22%


What: Big-picture Class Mechanics. We offered this class as a 1-unit course, which corresponds to a three hour commitment per week. Factoring in transportation from campus to Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, we were left with two hours of dedicated field time and 10-20 minutes of out-of-class work per week. The course was offered pass/fail without the option of receiving a letter grade and was an elective in the purest sense, not satisfying any program requirements.

We organized the course to start with skills-focused sessions (field journaling; sketching and writing in the field, and watercolor technique) and then transition to sessions that provided an opportunity to hone those skills while focusing on different natural systems (e.g., fungi, lichen, plant adaptations, landscape and geology). In the final sessions, we invited students to make connections, reflect on their experiences, and identify what they found most salient about field journaling and the practice of natural history. This structure gave students the space to discover value in their personal experience of field journaling.

Equipment and funding. We provided each student with a field journaling kit, which included a mixed media journal, pens and pencils, a waterbrush, and a palette. Watercolor tubes and artists tape were shared among the class. Students were responsible for maintaining their own journaling kits throughout the quarter.

During each class period, we each carried a backpack of supplies to allow the class to be completely mobile. In the first backpack we carried extra watercolor supplies (water, paint, artist’s tape, paper towels, pens and pencils); in the second we carried reference books students could use for guidance, information, and inspiration, including several field guides and The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling (Laws, 2016). We cut up inexpensive foam mats to make seat pads and offered these to students at the beginning of each session.

Our total budget was $1500, including materials ($800), field trips ($200), and honoraria for guest artists ($500). We received support for this class through university grants, which enabled us to offer the course without charging the students any additional fees. (See Appendix A for the link to an annotated budget.)

Weekly and daily class flows. Each week, we developed a learning plan that (1) identified the big-picture questions, learning objectives, and in-class journaling prompts; and (2) outlined a time-management plan. We chose different class locations within the preserve each week according to our focus and the natural rhythms of winter (e.g., taking advantage of wildflower blooms one week and tree-provided shelter from the rain the next).

On a typical Friday morning, we informally introduced our guests upon arriving at the preserve and immediately started walking to our destination of the day (5-30 min). Once there, the instructors or guest provided a brief introduction to the day’s focus and students were given a prompt to start their field journaling (5 min). The majority of each class period was devoted to journaling; students recorded their observations and questions by writing, charting, sketching, or watercoloring. About 20 minutes before walking back, we gathered once again to talk about what we had experienced, noticed, and wondered about.

Providing in-class journal prompts proved invaluable. We found that more specific and unexpected prompts enabled students to quickly dive into journaling. The specificity seemed to act like a toe-hold; it gave students a clear place to start and an initial burst of focus, but they were free to take the journaling session wherever they wanted to from there in the interest of facilitating creativity and engagement (Farnsworth et al. 2014). For example, in Week 8, with a focus on just journaling, the prompt was:

Draw a portrait of the tree. Get to know it from many distances and scales. Get to know its smells, the shapes of its leaves or needles, or the texture of its bark. Is it home to any animals? Does it host any fungus, lichen, or moss? What makes it distinct from other trees of the same species?

Journal pages from week 7 in response to the “Portrait of a Tree” prompt. Figure 1. Journal pages from week 7 in response to the “Portrait of a Tree” prompt.


Figure 1 shows examples of student journal pages from this session. Providing students with printed copies of the prompts helped keep our introduction brief and enabled them to revisit the prompt without interrupting their journaling. Resources created by John Muir Laws and shared through his website, mailing list, and The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling (2016) provided excellent inspiration and material for these prompts.

We heard again and again from our students that two hours in the field was not enough. Time spent interacting with guests, with each other, and physically moving around the preserve typically left students with less than an hour for just sitting and journaling, and as expressed through both informal and formal feedback, they wanted more time.

Integrating guests. Each week, we invited a guest with specialized knowledge relevant to the focus of the session to join us at Jasper Ridge. Over the course of the quarter, artists, writers, botanists, mycologists, geologists, and natural historians added their perspectives to class conversations. Interaction with guests was the element of the course that evolved most substantively during the quarter.

Initially we gave guests the teaching reigns for 20-50 minutes; however, it became clear in the first two classes that this model diminished continuity between weeks and cut into field journaling time too substantially. We realized that illustrative field journaling and natural history practice are based on particular skills, particular mindset, and the actual time to practice. Our guests offered valuable expertise about the particulars, but we needed to center on journaling, natural history, and time to practice. In response, we developed two strategies:

  1. We reframed the role of guests from active teacher to available resource. We asked guests to kick off the field journaling session with a 5-minute introduction to the session’s theme and invited them to journal alongside students in a dedicated guest journal. Students were invited to interrupt the guest with questions at any time, and as a result, guests did not actually journal that much. At the end of class, the guest engaged in the group conversation as a participant who brought extra insight into the theme of the week.
  2. We developed a Skills/Mindset/Practice approach to frame student interactions with guests. On skills days, generally with a guest artist, we focused on sketching, watercolor and field journaling techniques. On mindset days, generally with guests who had a well-developed personal practice of natural history observation and field journaling, we focused on approaches to being present in the field and playing with the ideas and questions generated from observation. Although we incorporated at least 30 minutes of practice into every class, on dedicated practice days we journaled for the entire session, generally focusing on a particular natural system that a guest scientist had spent significant time observing.

Assignments. Most weeks, we asked students to complete a short reading or journaling assignment, but did not require any documentation of completion in student journals or otherwise. We found that the assignments that sparked the most excitement were the readings that demonstrated the practice of natural history (e.g., an excerpt from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek [1985]) and the skills-based exercises that gave students new tools to play with in the field (primarily drawn from The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling [Laws 2016]). We did not explicitly revisit the readings or exercises in class, and found when looking through journals at the end of the quarter that there was evidence for about a 50% completion rate. We plan to experiment with asking students to document reading takeaways or favorite passages in their journals and to establish the expectation that we will check for completion (Farnsworth et al. 2014).

Table 1 shows a week-by-week outline of assignments.

Field trips. In addition to the Friday morning class meetings, we offered two off-campus field trips in the second half of the course. The first was an afternoon trip to the Foster Art Gallery, a collection of Tony Foster’s large-scale watercolor paintings that explore philosophical and environmental themes. This field trip exposed students to the work of an artist who has dedicated his life to practicing the skills we sought to cultivate. Students gave informal feedback that this trip was inspiring in a big picture way and that Foster’s works sparked interest in new watercolor techniques.

The second field trip was a half-day tour of Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, California. Although interesting, this field trip felt off-topic. It focused more on on-going science than the tradition of natural history underlying that science. After the tour, however, students put their journaling skills to work and produced some beautiful entries while observing tide pools. This stood out as a moment several students realized they had acquired skills and a mindset that could be used in an unfamiliar context to exciting ends. In the future, we might skip the tour and focus on flexing journaling skills in a new context.

We are also considering moving one of the trips earlier in the quarter to facilitate class bonding early on as a means to increase familiarity, ease of conversation, and comfort with journal sharing.

Wrap up and evaluation. In the second to last week of the quarter, we collected student journals with their favorite pages flagged (most chose two or three) and curated a mini-exhibition. We invited students, guest instructors, funders, and friends to attend. Journals were left open on a table in the center of the room. Guests were invited to check out flagged favorites but were welcome to page through the rest of the journal pages as well. In addition to providing a venue for showcasing in-class work to outsiders and giving students the chance to appreciate each other’s journals, this exhibition gave the instructors a natural opportunity to look through the journals and gather useful feedback on the course.

We did not keep the journals after the course or quantify their contents while they were in hand, but our qualitative assessment was that all journals contained more illustration and text than quantitative observation, and most trended heavily toward personal reflection on place and self. All students had entries for all ten class periods/prompts which, along with participation, was our only criteria for giving students a passing grade.

Several un-prompted themes in the journals were also apparent. We noticed, for instance, that at least four students wrote about the tension of creating disturbance to be a part of that which they were observing. In the future, we could address this tension more directly by assigning a reading such as On the Significance of Small Dead Things (Haberman 2015), which explores “the naturalist’s paradox of both loving and killing other animals.” We also noted that several students wrote about the positive mental health effects of spending time in Jasper Ridge, feedback that did not make its way back to us through formal evaluation mechanisms.

A formal end-of-quarter feedback survey solicited evaluation of achievement of the learning objectives outlined in the introduction of this article on a scale from 1 (not well at all) to 5 (extremely well). These survey data indicated that students felt like they had learned to use a field journal extremely well (mean rating 4.8, n = 6) and had developed a personal connection to the living and nonliving features of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (mean rating 4.7, n = 6). The learning objective least achieved was “understanding the value of putting their observations in conversation with observations of their peers and experts in the field and developing a community of practice” (mean rating 3.8, n = 6).


On the last day of class, we invited students to dive straight into journaling and explicitly prompted them to follow their curiosity and wonder wherever it took them. After more than an hour of journaling in intermittent rain and blazing sunshine, the class gathered for one last conversation kicked off by the question: “What did you choose to do for the last hour, and why did you choose to do it?” Students engaged in this final session earnestly. Each one had found a unique path to wonder, inquiry, and reflection, which reinforced one of our central intuitions about introducing self-aware, curious people to the tool of field journaling: Given the basic journaling tools and space to play, students are entirely capable of discovering the value of natural history themselves. Fittingly, their most memorable learnings came not from moments of lecturing, but from paying attention to the world around them.

Figure 2. A snapshot of qualitative feedback from formal course review Figure 2. A snapshot of qualitative feedback from formal course review


Despite overwhelmingly positive feedback about Quick Capture and Questions (Figure 2), we plan to make changes in the next iteration of the course:

  • We plan to invite a more diverse set of guests along the lines of race, ethnicity, and gender. Everyone should feel like they are able to access the natural world, and when they do, that they belong there. To work toward that in the scope of this course, we believe it is important to seek out diversity in teaching and expert roles.
  • We hope to cultivate a stronger sharing culture early on to mediate more shared learnings among students. We will experiment with:
    • putting journals away for an entire day to practice capturing observations in conversation with a partner;
    • incorporating pair-share exercises where students show their journals with each other during normal class flow; and
    • setting a precedent of referencing journal pages in the conversations at the end of class.
  • Watercolors, although luminous in student journals, had a steep learning curve which sometimes made the art feel like the goal rather than the tool.  We plan to either keep the watercolors and raise the commitment level of the course so students have more time to develop comfort with the medium, or offer the class with pen and ink as the medium of focus.


This class was made possible thanks to the generosity of The Educational Initiatives team in The Stanford School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences; The Stanford Arts ArtsCatalyst Grant; and the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.

Thank you to Cindy Wilbur, director of The Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, for giving us access to an incredible learning space.

Thank you to the guests who joined the class throughout the quarter: Mattias Lanas, Dr. John Farnsworth, Dr. Katherine Preston, John Muir Laws, and Caroline Daws.

Thank you to Deana Fabbro-Johnston, Anahid Babekian, and Melissa Vallejo, staff in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences, for their support and energy in the process of making this class come to life.

Thank you to our students for their delightful willingness to engage with us in this experiment.


Baldwin, L. 2017. Drawing care: The illustrated journal’s “path to place.” Journal of Teaching in Travel & Tourism 18(2):1-19.

Baldwin, L.K., and I. Crawford. 2010. Art instruction in a botany lab. Journal of College Science Teaching, 40(2): 18–23.

Canfield, M. 2011. Field Notes on Science and Nature. Harvard University Press.

Dillard, A. 1985. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper & Row.

Edwards, B. 1999. The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence. J.P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Eisner, E.W. 2002. The Arts and the Creation of Mind. Yale University Press.

Farnsworth, J. 2018. Beyond Solitude: Notes from the Field. Unpublished manuscript.

Farnsworth, J., L. Baldwin, and M. Bezanson. 2014. An invitation for engagement: Assigning and assessing field notes to promote deeper levels of observation. The Journal of Natural History Education and Experience 8: 12-20.

Finch, R. 1994. Common Ground: A Naturalist’s Cape Cod. W.W. Norton & Company.

Fleischner, T.L. 2005. Natural history and the deep roots of resource management. Natural Resources Journal 45: 1-13.

Fleischner, T.L. 2011. Why natural history matters. The Journal of Natural History Education and Experience 5: 21-24.

Fleischner, T.L. 2011. The mindfulness of natural history. Pages 3-15 in T.L. Fleischner, editor. The Way of Natural History. Trinity University Press.

Haberman, K.L. 2015. On the significance of small dead things. The Journal of Natural History Education and Experience 9: 8-12.

Jahren, H. 2016. Lab girl. Vintage.

Kimmerer, R.W. 2003. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Oregon State University Press.

Laws, J.M. 2016. The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling. Heyday.

Leslie, C.W. and C.E. Roth. 2000. Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World around You. Storey Books.

Macker, T. 2015. This World. White Cloud Press.

Wenger, E. 1999. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge university press, 1999.


Appendix 1. Class materials hosted on Google Drive. Please feel free to comment, download, use, and change.


Materials list

Annotated Budget

Language for Interdisciplinary Grant Application

Weekly Folders (including learning plans, readings, and activity prompts)

*indicates a particularly successful week

Week 1*

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5*

Week 6

Week 7

Week 8*

Week 9*


Freya Chay (freyac@stanford.edu) is pursuing a B.S. in Computer Science and an M.S. in Earth Systems at Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305 U.S.A. Hannah Black (hamcblack@gmail.com) recently completed an M.A. in Environmental Communication at Stanford University and currently works as an educator in Jawbone Flats, Oregon 97346 U.S.A. Richard Nevle (rnevle@stanford.edu) is the Deputy Director of the Earth Systems Program at Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305 U.S.A.

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