Time to Get Started: Exploring Common Themes in the Study of Living Things (Day 1 of 2)

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Students will be able to practice large group discussion norms and identify the major themes in biology.

Big Idea

Use a large scale environmental modern art installation to explore themes in biology and get your students talking!

Notes for the Teacher

This lesson utilizes a ten minute video clip from PBS's series called Art21.  The episode is called "ecology" and can be found on their website.  The clip, which starts at minute 43:40, focuses on the large scale modern environmental art installation of Mark Dion entitled Neukom Vivarium.  The clip fosters a student small group and large class discussion concerning the major themes found throughout the study of biology as outlined in our textbook, Biology: Exploring Life by N. Campbell et. al. and published by Prentice Hall.  

I love this lesson because...

  • it allows my freshman to immediately share an opinion about environmentalism, habitats, and art that does not require specialized science knowledge. 
  • we get to begin modeling our best practices for the respectful discussion of diverse opinions and divergent thinking that I want to cultivate in my students for the rest of our year together.  
  • using a modern art piece disrupts the internal narrative of those kids who have come into science class thinking it is something they won't like or do well in;  this grabs their attention and gives me a window of opportunity for scientific curiosity to take root. :)


I shared some of my thoughts about this lesson in this short video below. To help you as a teacher formulate your own class discussion prompts and/or guide the classroom conversation, I've included this brief summary of science and ecology themes found throughout the ten minute clip showing Mark Dion's work and process.

The Classroom Flow: Introduction

5 minutes

At the start of the class, I list out on the board and together we briefly review the major/broad themes of biology they have previously read about in their textbook.  They are:

Biological Systems


Form & Function

Reproduction & Inheritance

Interaction with the Environment

Energy & Life


Adaptation & Evolution

Biology & Society

Scientific Inquiry

The Classroom Flow: The Video

20 minutes

1. I tell students we are going to watch a video and that I want them to be thinking about how what they see fits with what they already know about our themes.  Together, we watch the video clip which begins at the 43:40 mark in the Ecology episode of the Art21 series.

2. I pass out the accompanying video guide prompts.  We read the prompts aloud as a large group.  I then ask students to write down some quick notes/impressions/ideas connecting the prompts to our video clip.

3. I ask each student to pick one prompt that they are specifically interested in discussing further and put a star by it on their handout.  

The Classroom Flow: Four Corners

15 minutes

1.  Use the Four Corners (jigsaw) approach and have students to move to the area of the room where the discussion of their chosen prompt will be taking place.  I post handwritten signs for each prompt corner to help students find their chosen spot for discussion.  

2.  Once students have gone to the Four Corner area associated with their preferred discussion prompt, allow each group to have 10-15 minutes to talk about their prompt responses and organize their collective thoughts to share out with the large group later.  

  • Note: I have found that students will have very definite opinions about environmental issues and the role of this particular installation.  Specifically, I have heard at least a few students ask why the artist moved this ecosystem to the urban environment if he is really interested in preservation of natural habitats.  I find it fun to walk to each group and listen in to their thoughts and ask follow up questions that might spark further discussion.  I chose this activity because it is all about making connections, sharing opinions based upon personal and shared experiences, and responding to others in a substantive way.

The Classroom Flow: Class Discussion

15 minutes

For our large class discussion, each prompt group chooses a spokesperson/people to share out their major comments with the group and field responses from the entire class.  

  • Note:  My goal here is to encourage students early on in our school year together to share their opinions based upon what they saw in the video and from their own experiences.  Because of the accessible nature of this subject and modern art framework, students tend to feel very comfortable adding to the spokesperson's initial responses. 
  • I am also taking a pulse of the class as a whole.  For this reason, I do not require every student to speak out during the small or large group discussions, but rather am taking discreet notes regarding who my talkers are and who is more reserved.  This gives me more direction as I work to get to know my students and build classroom community and identity, target and address student needs, and structure future group work.


I just completed this lesson last week and put together a few of my follow up thoughts in this video below.  I've also included a sample of student group talking points posters that came out of their prompt discussions for you to view as a potential option to get kids talking and sharing.  

Now on to Day 2 where students explore the themes of biology in relation to their own personal science knowledge!