} CAS: Teachers - What's on a Penny?

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Pre-Visit Activity: What's on a Penny?


In this activity, students will explore the intricacies of pennies and nickels to observe objects carefully and practice detailed descriptive writing.  This activity will prepare your students for their All About Microscopes Student Lab Program, but is also a great introduction to the importance of both qualitative and quantitative observations.


In this activity, students will explore the intricacies of pennies and nickels to:

  1. observe objects carefully
  2. practice detailed descriptive writing
  3. prepare for their All About Microscopes Student Lab Program


  • pennies (1 per student pair)
  • nickels (1 per student pair)
  • student worksheet (1 per student)
  • pencils
  • rulers
  • magnifying glasses (optional)


  • observing: the process of  using one or more of your senses to gather information.
  • qualitative observation: an observation that deals with characteristics that cannot be expressed in numbers, but is often expressed in words
  • quantitative observation: an observation that deals with a number or amount



  1. Make enough copies of the student worksheet for each student to have one. Collect enough pennies and nickels for your class.


  • Ask students to brainstorm what is on the front and back of a penny. 


  1. Pass out the student worksheet.  Give students 2-3 minutes to draw the front and back of a penny from memory. 
  2. Discuss their drawings.  What questions did you come across as you were drawing?  What were you sure of?  What were you unsure of?  What would make this activity easier?  Why are observations important?
  3. Give each student pair one penny, one nickel, magnifying glasses, and one ruler to share.  Tell the students that they will be writing descriptions of the back of their coin so that their partner can draw it.  One student will write a description of the penny.  The other student will write a description of the nickel.  Discuss with your students what would make a good description so that someone else can draw it.  Students will need to include both qualitative and quantitative descriptions.  Give students approximately 5 minutes to write as many observations as they can. 
  4. Have the students in each pair trade descriptions.  Each student will draw either the penny or the nickel based on the description given – no peeking at the coin! 


Discuss the following questions with your students:

  • What descriptions were particularly useful in drawing the coin?
  • What other details, words, or measurements could have made it easier to draw the coin? (number of columns on the buildings, capitalization of letters, spacing, proportions, placement of words, shapes and sizes of smudges etc.)
  • What is the difference between a qualitative and quantitative observation?  How is each type of observation useful? (Qualitative observations are expressed in words and are useful for describing shapes, placement, color, etc.  Quantitative observations involve numbers and are useful for the numbers of columns, spacing, etc.  These two types of descriptions work together to give a complete picture of the coin.)
  • Why are descriptions important? (Observations are the first step toward exploring and investigating the natural world.  Without proper descriptions, scientists can’t make new discoveries!)


  • Encourage students to add observations to their worksheet that incorporate the remaining senses aside from taste: smell, touch, and sound (they can tap the coin in the desk or tap the coin with their pencil).
  • Lay the pennies across a table or window ledge with the backside up.  Challenge students to find the coin that they documented without turning the penny over to check the date.  Did everyone find their coin?  If not, students can dispute with others using the descriptions on their worksheet as evidence.  For an extra challenge, have students search for the coin their partner described!

California Content Standards

Grade Three

Investigation and Experimentation

  • 5c. Use numerical data in describing and comparing objects, events, and measurements.

Grade Four

Investigation and Experimentation

  • 6b. Measure and estimate the weight, length, or volume of objects.
  • 6f.  Follow a set of written instructions for a scientific investigation.

Grade Five

Investigation and Experimentation

  • 6f. Select appropriate tools (e.g., thermometers, meter sticks, balances, and graduated cylinders) and make quantitative observations.

Grade Seven

Investigation and Experimentation

  • 7a. Select and use appropriate tools and technology (including calculators, computers, balances, spring scales, microscopes, and binoculars) to perform tests, collect data, and display data.



Making and communicating observations are essential skills for any scientist.  How else can we learn more about the natural world?  This simple activity will get students thinking about what makes a good observation, and will give them the opportunity to practice communicating their measurements and descriptions in a way that will allow others to visualize or replicate their experience.

In this activity, students will draw a coin from memory.  This is no small task!  Even though we see pennies almost daily, how often do we really observe them?  After a quick discussion about observations and descriptions, students will receive either a penny or a nickel.  In pairs, one student will write a description of a penny while observing it; the other will observe and describe a nickel.  They will then be challenged to draw their partner’s coin using only the documented observations. 

If your students are taking the All About Microscopes (Grades 3-8) class at the Academy, this is good practice for the detailed observations, descriptions, and drawings we will be making in class.


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