Note to teachers: Please don't let the idea of this lesson scare you away; this is an awesome opportunity for students to put themselves in the role of scientists and truly apply many of the science practices. I did consider peoples' fear of spiders as I put together this lesson so please read on.
The science practices that will be applied during this lesson as students work in groups to identify different types of spiders are:
SP1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems
SP3: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
SP6: Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
SP7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence
SP8: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information
I begin this lesson by asking students to imagine the following scenario:
You are just waking up from a deep nights sleep when you notice some fang marks on the back of your hand. You look to the side and you notice a shiny black spider dead on the bed next to you and you think the worst thing possible - black widow! What do you do?
Let students share their thoughts but then guide the discussion to bringing the spider to the hospital where it can be identified by an expert (we will refer back to this in the next section). Show students this picture of a false widow spider that we are basing the opening scenario around.
To allow students to compare this with a type of black widow that does not have the typical red hour glass warning I show them this image and have them compare and contrast the two spiders.
I next tell students that this scenario is based on a story I read (#5 of 10 Scary Spider Stories) that described how England is "under attack" from the rising false widow spider population, most likely caused by the rising temperatures due to global warming (we get into that topic later in the year so it is nice to be able to make that connection).
I also like to share story number 9, which describes how flood conditions caused some spiders to use ballooning (releasing web to allow the wind to carry them off) and the effect of that on the community. After sharing, I give students some time to share their responses/reactions to those stories (or we will never be able to move on!)
Referring back to the opening scenario, I ask students what an expert would look at to attempt to identify the type of spider. I record student answers on the board. Most students should be able to put together a reasonable list, such as looking at the characteristics or behavior of the spider; however, you may choose to have students use computers or smart phones to go to this website to get a full list of how to identify spiders prior to discussing this as a class.
Note: I accidentally got my students interested in spiders early in the year when I received a "gift" from my curriculum director: a live orb weaver spider. This became our class pet, with students creating a habitat and collecting crickets and grass hoppers for it. Once we had this spider, students and teachers alike began bringing in specimens for us to keep. As these spiders died (they don't all live very long), I put them into capped test tubes of alcohol so we could look at them under the stereoscopes when teaching this unit. This provides students with many options of spiders to study and identify during this lesson: our living specimen, living or preserved specimen they collect, my preserved specimen, or, for those that can't handle the real thing, images from the Spiders of Illinois PowerPoint I created. The comments section of the PowerPoint has the identification of each image for the benefit of the teacher; do not allow students to access the PowerPoint itself unless you remove those notes.
My main purpose with this lesson is to give students the opportunity to experience the challenge of what scientists actually do in the field. I show students this video to give them a frame of reference.
I point out that the first thing students have to do is find a spider. If any students have brought in their own spider(s), I have them explain where they found it and how they went about collecting/capturing the spider.
Students that have not collected their own specimen can choose any of the following options:
Any of the options provide similar learning experiences but take student (and teacher?) comfort levels into consideration.
Any student selecting actual spiders, living or preserved, can get right to work figuring out how to identify the type of spider they are looking at. I do not tell students how to go about doing this; they must find out what to do on their own. I allow students to work in groups of 2 or 3 since often our collective minds can figure out more and this allows students to bounce ideas off each other and practice discourse with arguments based on evidence (SP7).
I do set up the preserved specimens into petri dishes and show them how to use the tweezers in a gentle way so as to not ruin the specimen (they need to last throughout the activity and sometimes if you squeeze a bit too hard the spider goes shooting out of the grip like a marble when you pinch it just right...hilarious but not the best use of time!). This video shows one student group explaining what they observed using the microscope, their initial idea about the type of spider they had and their plan to verify their hypothesis.
For students who choose the image option, I want them to experience the thrill of the hunt! Prior to this lesson, I tape copies of the different spiders around the school in areas that students would be likely to find spiders. Students first need to find a picture of a spider and then they must go through the identification process.
This video explains how I used QR codes to create a scavenger hunt using the images from the Spiders of Illinois PowerPoint. Please refer to the reflection for what I had students do once the scavenger hunt was complete.
Because each version of spider identification has its own benefits and challenges, once students have completed the activity they will share their experience with the class. Students' two minute presentations must include the following information:
Each student group shares this information for the rest of the class.
The following 2-3 days will be spent allowing students to synthesize their learning into their final project spider biodiversity quest.