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Making Biological Drawings

Biological drawing of Asian (1) & African (2) elephants, from Book 5 of the 4th edition of Meyers Konversationslexikon (1885-90), Wiki Commons, {PD-1923}


Students learn how to accurately produce and label biological drawings.




In life science classes, teachers often ask students to sketch or draw what they are observing under the microscope. It is not uncommon for these drawings to be of low quality. One problem is that most students haven’t been taught the correct way to make biological drawings. Another is that they are not always given enough time to do it well and they become impatient when a specimen has a lot of fine detail. This lesson provides tools for teachers to overcome these obstacles and make biological drawing a fun and meaningful experience for students, especially for those who do not believe they have any artistic ability.

A biological drawing is supposed to be an accurate representation of what was actually observed. This is very different from the types of drawing most students have experienced. In art, for example, a drawing may either be accurate or abstract. It can be done from memory. It can be embellished, incomplete, and made using any number of different media. A biological drawing, in contrast, should only be made while actually looking at a specimen. It should be done only with sharp, simple pencil lines on white paper, without any shading or sketching. It should be done slowly and carefully, looking at the specimen every few seconds to ensure that the drawing is accurate. Mistakes should be erased and redrawn.

This lesson provides a good opportunity to teach students about scientific and academic integrity. Some students will no doubt submit drawings that are sloppy and inaccurate because they neglected to put in the time and patience necessary to make a good quality drawing. This is not necessarily a violation of academic or scientific integrity. However, if they continue to draw while they are not actively looking at their specimens (e.g., at home or at their desks), they will be drawing from memory, rather than what was actually observed. This could be considered an integrity violation since a biological drawing is supposed to be an accurate representation of what was actually observed.

Many students will become impatient with specimens that have too much detail and will want to rush through their drawings, taking shortcuts like drawing a bunch of random circles, rather than carefully copying each individual cell exactly how it looks. This is not an appropriate shortcut, as it results in drawings that are idealized and inaccurate. However, it is usually unnecessary to draw the entire specimen—a small cross section that includes most of the different cell types present will suffice (and take considerably less time to complete). It helps if the teacher models good biological drawing for the students and projects this onto a screen for the class to see. It also helps to show students good and bad models in advance and talk about what is wrong with the bad models. It is also helpful to give students plenty of time to make their drawings so they don’t feel the pressure to rush through and produce a sloppy product.


(Students Will Be Able to):

  • Make accurate biological drawings
  • Correctly label biological drawings
  • Identify mistakes in poorly made biological drawings




This lesson can be completed in one 50-min class period (or less). It is a good lesson to do before any subsequent microscope lessons that require biological drawings. It would make sense to do this lesson after the Scientific Process lessons (especially “Observation and Inference”).


30-45 min


  • Rulers (1 per student)
  • Handouts (1 per student)
  • Sharp #2 pencils with clean erasers (at least 1 per student)
  • Good models and bad models (either photocopied or projected)


  • Make photocopies of handouts
  • Obtain rulers and pencils if you do not already have them
  • Prepare slides of good and bad models of biological drawings
  • Prepare slides for Anticipatory Set


Show the Power Point slide show, or prepare your own slides of biological drawings. Ask students why scientists make biological drawings. Answers will vary, but some of the reasons are: to share data with their colleagues or the public; to compare related organisms; to study the form and function of organisms and their parts. Biological drawings can also be very beautiful. Ernst Haeckel’s drawings have been made into popular posters and inspired sculptures and architecture during the Art Nouveau movement.


  1. Do the anticipatory set with students
  2. Pass out the biological drawings handout and have students take turns reading the rules aloud (or read them aloud to students). Spend time explaining and clarifying each rule (e.g., why it is important; how to follow it correctly and avoid mistakes).
    Good Model of a Biological Drawing (Image by Michael Dunn, Creative Commons)
  3. Show some bad models of biological drawings and have students identify the errors (you can use the ones provided with this lesson or collect your own examples from previous classes)
    Bad Model of Biological Drawing by HS Student (Image posted by Michael Dunn, Creative Commons)
    • Scale is at top instead of beneath drawing
    • Idealized and inaccurate
    • Was done partially in pen
      Bad Model of Biological Drawing Done by a HS Student (Image posted by Michael Dunn, Creative Commons)
    • Very idealized and inaccurate
    • Structures are not correctly identified or labeled
    • No magnification is given
  4. Have students look over the bad example on side 2 of the worksheet and list 6-7 problems with it. If they get stuck, have them go through each of the rules they just read and check to see which of these rules were not followed in the bad example. (For younger students, this can be done in groups or as a teacher led activity)
  5. At this point, you could either debrief this portion of the activity as a whole class, reviewing why the bad model was bad, or have students jump right into the second part of the activity, which is to draw their own good version of the specimen, following all the rules.
  6. When students are ready to make their own drawings, make sure they have rulers (so they can make straight labeling lines) and clean erasers and are using #2 pencils and not pens.
  7. Remind students to take their time, and to slowly and carefully draw exactly what is there (not what they imagine to be there or an idealized view of it). Remind students they do not have to draw every single cell shown in the micrograph of onion root tip cells, but a sample that represents each type shown. Also remind them to look at the specimen for a few seconds, draw for a few seconds, and look again at the specimen, repeating this process until finished.
  8. It is helpful to circulate around the room as students are working and to redirect those who are drawing from memory, rather than constantly looking back at the specimen. Remind them that the drawings are supposed to be accurate representations of reality—not art projects; not from memory.


Some students will take their time and have the patience to make drawings that look very much like the specimen. However, some may end up with idealized drawings. Particularly common is the drawing of cells as random circles, ovals or rectangles (depending on the cell type) done quickly and sloppily, with incomplete loops, burrs or curlicues hanging off them. This can be minimized with good modeling by the teacher, reminding students they don’t have to draw every single cell, and then giving them sufficient time.

For students who are not yet developmentally ready for replicating the fine detail of intricate specimens, the focus can be on the gross details. For example, drawing rectangular cells as rectangles and not squares, or drawing oval cells as ovals and not circles. In the attached worksheet, rather than having K-2 students try to draw the cells and the nuclei at varying stages of mitosis, students could be encouraged to draw just the outlines of the cells, emphasizing the correct shape.


  1. Why do scientists make biological drawings? How are they useful to us?
  2. Why is it important to use pencil and not pen?
  3. Why is it inappropriate to draw at your desk, home or away from your specimen?


Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

K-2-ETS1-2. Develop a simple sketch, drawing, or physical model to illustrate how the shape of an object helps it function as needed to solve a given problem.

Phenomena that can be observed at one scale may not be observable at another scale. (MS-LS1-1) MS-LS1-2.

Develop and use a model to describe the function of a cell as a whole and ways parts of cells contribute to the function. Complex and microscopic structures and systems can be visualized, modeled, and used to describe how their function depends on the shapes, composition, and relationships among its parts, therefore complex natural structures/systems can be analyzed to determine how they function. (MS-LS3-1)

(MS-LS4-1),(MS-LS4-2) Science assumes that objects and events in natural systems occur in consistent patterns that are understandable through measurement and observation.

HS-LS1-2. Develop and use a model to illustrate the hierarchical organization of interacting systems that provide specific functions within multicellular organisms. The significance of a phenomenon is dependent on the scale, proportion, and quantity at which it occurs.

(HS-LS2-1)Using the concept of orders of magnitude allows one to understand how a model at one scale relates to a model at another scale. (HS-LS2-2)

HS-LS1-4. Use a model to illustrate the role of cellular division (mitosis) and differentiation in producing and maintaining complex organisms.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

SL.2.5 Create audio recordings of stories or poems; add drawings or other visual displays to stories or recounts of experiences when appropriate to clarify ideas, thoughts, and feelings. (2-LS2-2)

(MS-LS4-3),(MS-LS4-4)Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.

SL.8.5 Integrate multimedia and visual displays into presentations to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence, and add interest. (MS-LS1-2)

SL.11-12.5 Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest. (HS-LS1-2),(HS-LS1-4),(HS-LS1-5),(HS-LS1-7)

Supporting Word Files

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