Who are the Creatures in Your Neighborhood?

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Objective

Students will be able to observe and identify specific examples of organisms and ecological relationships on school grounds and reflect on the ways those organisms interact with each other and with humans.

Big Idea

You don't have to go far to study ecology... nature's byzantine machinations are always at work around us.

Introduction

In this lesson, students will go out onto the school campus to explore the types of organisms living on school grounds.  The main idea with this lesson is that students will be able to connect some of the course content (specifically vocabulary linked to describing ecological niches) with the world around them. 

A secondary (though no less important, really) consideration is for students to begin the process of looking more closely and contemplating how nature both surrounds and supports them on a level that most people take for granted.  This "closer look" and fundamental appreciation of nature is a major theme running through many of the units in this course. 

 

Connection to the Standards:

In this lesson students will produce coherent writing using domain-specific vocabulary appropriate to the topic.  Many (though not all) students will use technology to publish and revise their work.

Warm Up

15 minutes

I begin this lesson by having a volunteer distribute the lab instructions to students.  I then explain to the students that this will be an opportunity to see the vocabulary and concepts we have been discussing in the classroom out in the real world.

I then go over the main requirements:

  • They must observe and describe at least 6 organisms.
    • they need to find at least 1 producer, 1 consumer, and 1 decomposer
  • They must observe and describe at least 5 ecological relationships
    • Some of these may be repeated if there are multiple relationship types within the category (e.g., mutualism and parasitism are both examples of symbiotic relationships; predation and herbivory are both examples of a transfer of energy)

I check for understanding of these requirements by first having a student explain the number/category of organisms requirement.  I then ask a different student to explain the ecological relationship requirement.
 
Once I am certain all students understand the requirements,I then explain to students that they should choose a partner to work with (in my class students are arranged in tables of four, so they usually choose to just split their group in half).

Once students have found their partner, I explain that each pair should have the following supplies:

  • Instructions
  • Paper
  • Writing utensil
  • Camera
  • Ruler
  • Magnifying lens

Once everyone has a partner and has organized their supplies, we get ready to head outside.

Explore: Let's Go Outside!

75 minutes

We start by walking as a class to the first outdoor area.  I split our outdoor exploration time between 3-4 areas of campus for 15-20 minutes in each space.

It's good to be strategic in your selection of spaces to ensure as much of a diversity of organisms as possible on your campus.  It helps to be familiar with the types of organisms that you'll find in each area, so I recommend doing your own survey of campus before selecting your areas.  

On my campus, I take my students to:

  • An area just outside the front entrance to the school that is planted with many decorative plants such as palm trees, birds of paradise, and yucca.
  • An area next to the baseball field that has a row of older coniferous trees that predate the construction of the school by decades.
  • An area where a gardening club has planted a student garden, filled with brussell sprouts, tomatoes, rhubarb, etc.  

 

It's important to keep track of the time at each location because if your campus is anything like mine, it will take a few minutes (think a passing period at least) to corral a whole class from one end of campus to another.  As much as students may complain about asking them to leave a particular spot (which they are going to want to do once they start making their own discoveries), it's important to move them on so that they can have the varied experiences of different locations.

 

Please note the following considerations to help you in your role as the facilitator of this activity:

  • Students often need help "seeing" the organisms and ecological relationships right in front of them.  However, once you help them to do so, they get very excited as they start seeing these examples all around them.  In the first area of campus, I check in with every group to make sure they can make the connections between class and the real world, for example:
    • The palm trees are examples of producers, but many of them have epiphytic plants growing amongst their leaves (an example of commensalism).  Additionally, the ground beneath the palms is littered with their small fruits (an example of reproduction).

 

  • One of the hardest organisms for many students to find is an example of a decomposer.  If you choose, you may allow students to substitute a detritivore (e.g., my school has lots of discarded student food after lunch and many students can find example of insects crawling over a half-eaten apple).  However, I encourage my students to really search harder to find a true decomposer.  Since the real purpose of this lesson is to have students really investigate the world around them more carefully, I would rather the students really search and fail to find a decomposer then to give them an "easy out". 
    • In the case of my students, I had two groups that were working together, using sticks to sift through leaf litter under some trees before they found two extremely tiny mushrooms poking out of the soil.  The screams of joy when they found a decomposer was exactly the kind of payoff I was hoping for.

 

Once we have completed the rotation between the different sites, I begrudgingly tell students it's time to go back inside (they really are having fun).  As much fun as this part of the lesson is, it's equally important that the reflective writing portion of the lesson is given its due and not treated as an afterthought.

Wrap Up- Organizing Data and Reflection

30 minutes

 

Once we are back inside, students are given time to organize their observations and write reflections about the activity.

For those students that took pictures with their cameras, some may choose to use those as the basis for illustrations, but most prefer to include the picture itself in their write up.  In these cases, I allow students to use the class computers and complete the assignment digitally.  I do not require students to turn in a hard copy, so they can either email me their completed work or share a Google doc.  Many students chose to simply write an email that had pictures attached, while a few made word docs with the pictures embedded.  One student chose to make their own powerpoint presentation which I include here.  While it's not a requirement to produce digital work for this assignment, I discuss in my reflection how for some students, producing digital work is easier than more traditional handwritten work.

Although many students diligently record their observations in the field and don't need too much time putting it all together, many others get caught up in the "scavenger hunt" aspect of the outdoor activity and may need help making sense of what they observed.  I therefore spend this time walking from group to group to make sure that students can make the connections between what they observed and the categories of organisms and relationships they were looking for. 


After students have finished cataloging their observations for the day, there is the final reflective question regarding how the "creatures in their neighborhood" would be affected by the disappearance of humans.  Since this question is fairly open-ended, I find it easiest to help with this question by engaging individual students in dialogue, asking guiding questions such as,

  • "What would happen if there weren't people here?", A: "hmmm... maybe the trees would die?"
  • "Why do you think that would happen?", A: "Because maybe they wouldn't get enough water."
  • "Why wouldn't they get enough water?", A: "Because LA is in a drought"
  • "Well why aren't they dead already then?", A: "Because we water them"
  • "How do you?  Did you observe it?", A: "I didn't see the watering, but there's sprinklers out front by the big palm trees and flowers... and there's a hose by the garden."

 

30 minutes should be enough time for students to complete their reflections, but if not, I assign the writing as homework due the next period.  At the beginning of the next period we will have a short debrief, as I go down the list of requirements and ask students to offer examples of organisms and ecological relationships in each category.