Have Fun Doing Science with a Camera

Web Id: P13

Many children either have a camera of their own or have learned to use one. This activity provides tips and ideas for helping children do science with a camera–and have fun while doing so.

Age Range: 6 to 11

Time Required: When teaching children about making photographs, begin by asking those who have used a camera to raise their hand. You will find that many children have already learned to use a basic camera and that some have one of their own. Cameras used by children range from disposables and functional toy cameras to point-and-shoot digitals and cell phone cameras. Children w

Monarch butterfly

Image courtesy Forrest M. Mims III. Photographs of monarch butterflies during their spring and fall migrations provide an important record of the timing of their migrations.

ith prior camera experience can help teach those who have never used a camera. First, it’s wise to review how to use a camera for an entire group, for even experienced children may be unfamiliar with some key points about making a good a photograph. Allow an hour or so to teach a group of children how to use a camera. Half the time should be spent on teaching the basics. The other half should be devoted to making photographs. Later allow time to evaluate and critique photographs and to explain how to get better results.

Background:Children may have no idea about how far camera technology has advanced since the days when images were recorded on glass plates coated with light-sensitive emulsion. Explain that the first consumer cameras were developed in 1888. You can find images of early cameras on the web. Many children may be unaware that the basic idea of light-sensitive film used by the first consumer cameras remained the dominant form of photography until the end of the 20th century. Explain that disposable cameras still use this method for making photographs. Today is the era of the digital camera, and children should be told how images are captured by an electronic sensor and stored on solid-state memory cards. They should be informed that this method of photography gives them far great control over photography than their parents had as children. Explain that pictures they can print on a computer printer are often just as good as those that were once only available from a camera store or by mail order. Finally, inform children that they can do science with a camera. Let them know that they can make collections of images of rocks, flowers, insects, feathers, bird nests, trees, clouds and the sky. These photographs can be made from home, school and during trips.

Significance:Children can use today’s new generation of digital cameras to do real science. The camera has always been a tool of science, and today’s digital cameras are far more flexible and capable than film cameras a generation ago. Cameras are ideal for documenting science fair projects. They can even be used as a research tool for such projects. Explain to children how cameras can preserve the presence of transient events like clouds, contrails, rain, snow, air pollution and sunsets. Tell children that cameras can document all kinds of living plants and insects, birds, reptiles and other animals. Explain how cameras can make a record of trees, mountains, rivers, streams and glaciers. Tell them how photographs of specific scenes can be saved for months or years so they can be compared with new photographs to see if any changes have occurred.
Project Links:
Real Time Data Source:
MY NASA DATA Source:In the Live Access Server: Datasets: Atmosphere: Clouds: Cloud Coverage. Historical data on Monthly Cloud Coverage for a variety of cloud types is available from ISCCP.
Project Ideas:Children can do many kinds of science projects using a film or digital camera. Below are some ideas for making collections of photos. The photographs should be stored in an album, displayed on a poster or stored in a computer. Each photograph should be labeled with the name of the subject (cloud, tree, leaf, etc.) and the date and location from which it was photographed.

1. Make a Cloud Photo Album. Children can learn much about clouds and their identification by making photographs of various kinds of clouds. Because clouds are so easy to photograph, this is an ideal starter project. The project should include at least several photographs each of fluffy cumulus clouds, mid-level clouds and high cirrus clouds. Information about cloud identification can be found at this GLOBE cloud quiz site.

2. Make a Tree Photo Album. A tree photo album provides a good way to teach children about tree identification. Photos should show all or most of each tree. It’s OK to include nearby buildings, cars and power lines, since these features show the tree’s immediate environment. Deciduous trees lose their leaves in the winter. They should be photographed with and without leaves. Trees whose leaves change color in the fall should be photographed during their color change. Information about tree identification can be found on the web, including sites of the National Arbor Day Foundation. This National Arbor Day Foundation site leads to an animation that shows how to identify six trees. While the web is fast becoming the universal information source, nothing beats a nature identification book that students can flip through to find their quarry. So a visit to a library is something to consider.

3. Make a Leaf Photo Album. Leaves provide major clues to the identification of plants ranging from grass to trees. Leaves can be collected, pressed and mounted in a display album. But why not photograph them and save the photographs? The key requirement for photographing leaves is a camera with a close-up (or macro) capability. Fixed focus disposable film cameras cannot be used for close-up photos. Some cell phone cameras can provide close-up photos, but much better results can be had with a point-and-shoot camera with a close-up capability. Photos should be carefully composed by looking at the camera’s display screen. If the camera is too close, the leaf will be fuzzy. If the camera is not held perfectly still when the picture is made, the picture will be blurred. Be sure that the leaf is well illuminated and that the camera doesn’t cast its shadow over it. This e-Nature tree identification guide includes leaf photographs. This e-Nature wild flower identification guide shows both leaves and flowers. And don’t forget to check printed field guides available at libraries and book stores.

4. Make a Sunset Photo Album. Colorful sunsets are often caused by dust and other particles high in the sky. Children who photograph colorful sunsets and twilights can gather important information about the presence of these particles. Children should never look at the sun through a camera viewfinder. The best sunset photos are made just AFTER the sun slips below the horizon. The best twilight photos are made 10-20 minutes after the sun sets.

5. Make a Zoo Photo Album. A field trip to a zoo provides an opportunity for children to photograph animals, plants and one another and make a hard copy or virtual scrap book of their trip. Another option is for a teacher to select the best photos and make a class web site from these images.

Analysis Ideas:You can do science with an inexpensive disposable camera, a digital point-and-shoot camera or an expensive single-lens reflex (SLR) digital camera. When you begin a science project that uses a camera, it’s best to decide on a specific camera that fits your budget and your purpose rather than changing cameras as you go along. The best time to change cameras is when you expand your project or begin a new one. Disposable film cameras are simple to use and often produce nice photos. You can use a digital scanner to digitize prints made from these cameras. For best results, use a digital camera for science applications. You can find reviews of many different cameras as well as camera specifications and discussion forums on the internet.

Digital Camera Tips contains a list of 20 tips for using cameras. A very useful list of ten tips for specifically teaching children how to use a camera can be found here.

Related Projects:

The CERES S’COOL Project offers a more formal way for school age children to be involved in cloud observation. The GLOBE program does as well.

Questions:How well can children use a camera? Ask these questions and find out:

1. How should you press the shutter button of a camera to avoid a blurred picture?
2. Why would you think about using a flash outside when the sun is shining?
3. How should a camera lens be cleaned?
4. What are some reasons for a fuzzy picture?

Going Further:If you can collect a good series of nature photographs, one of the best ways to organize them is to display them on a web site. Many web sites allow you to do this without charge–but be sure to read the fine print first if you want to keep the copyright to your photos. It’s important to include an organized description of each photo, including the date and location.
Project ideas contributed by Forrest M. Mims III