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The Peanut Pageant

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Originally appears in the Summer 2007 issue

The peanut observation activity (see below) has become a classic exercise for teaching the skills of observation, and several authors have described strategies for connecting it with other learning goals.1 For years we have been using the peanut activity to help our middle grades students to engage in an informed and personally relevant debate of the ethics of scientific research, particularly of research using animals. We accomplish this by holding a “peanut pageant,” and have enjoyed so much success that we thought we’d share the idea.

Peanut observation activity

To start the peanut observation activity, each student is given a peanut and asked to observe it and record their observations, along with their names, on an index card. (Be sure to inquire about peanut allergies! If you do have a student with a peanut allergy in your class, lemons or potatoes can be used as a substitute). In a few minutes, students usually think they have recorded all of their peanut’s important features. They are then instructed to put a “secret mark” on their peanut so that they can identify it but no one else can. All peanuts are placed in a large container, and the index cards with written observations are collected. The index cards are then distributed, one to each student, with careful attention to ensure that no one is given their own set of observations. Students then read these (typically poor) observations and attempt to find the peanut described.

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William Straits is Assistant Professor of Science Education at California State University, Long Beach. Glenn Grizzard is Director of Mountain Pathways School in Boone, North Carolina.