Note: The following activity is based on National Academy of Sciences. 1998. Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. [doi: 10.17226/5787]
Here is a classic activity that helps students to differentiate between observation and inference, but also encourages them to revise their thinking as more information becomes available.
Tell students that they are going to be looking at an image of fossilized footprints, but in stages.
(reveal Area A)
Take a look at this scene of fossilized footprints. They may be from prehistoric times or much more recent.
Make three or more observations.
Using what you know, are there any inferences you can make?
(reveal Area B)
Let’s expand our view of the scene. Now there are two kinds of footprints.
Make five or more observations. You might describe size, shape, direction, quantities, distances….
Using what you know, what inferences can you make?
(reveal Area C)
Now we see even more footprints. There’s a lot of data now. What can we observe and infer here?
Be careful not to jump to conclusions about what might have happened here, but you can form multiple hypotheses.
Does the pattern of footprints indicate changes in speed, direction, or anything else for each creature? What could the footprints suggest about what the creatures or the landscape looked like, and how they may have interacted, if at all?
(reveal Area D)
Finally, we yet more footprints even farther to the right but it's pretty different. Make additional observations and then as many inferences as you can that you think are reasonable.