ENRICHMENT: A walk through the chaparral

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Students will be able to identify examples of ecological content on a hike through a nature reserve.

Big Idea

There's only so much about the environment that can be communicated in a classroom. For students to truly understand ecology and the environment, they need to experience nature first hand.


This lesson is more of a field trip.  I offer it here for two reasons:

1. The Sierra Club has an amazing program called ICO (Inspiring Connections Outdoors, formerly Inner-City Outings) that offers transportation and knowledgable volunteers to lead hikes near urban areas.   This is a tremendous resource for teachers that have trouble securing funding for field trips and also a great way for teachers to discover interesting destinations in their area.

2. There's only so much you can learn about nature from a book, a presentation, a movie, etc.  Yes, you can learn a lot of interesting facts from these sources, but a true appreciation and understanding of nature can best be achieved from actual experiences in natural areas.  For my students and many in urban schools, a trip like this may be their first experience in a natural setting.

So in my case, the goal of this hiking field trip was really to get students out into a natural setting as early as possible in the year to help them connect personally with the central theme of the course: we depend on a healthy environment and it is worth preserving.  

However, this lesson could be placed at different points in the year as it connects well with lessons from both the ecology unit and the biomes unit, such as:

Additionally, if you choose to go on a trip like this one with your students even later in the school year, it might be a terrific opportunity for them to collect species information as part of the biodiversity survey from the biodiversity unit.


Connection to the Standards:

In this lesson, students will produce clear and coherent writing based on their experiences and observations, and use content vocabulary appropriate to the subject matter they are describing. 

Planning Your Trip

There are a few essentials when planning a hiking trip with your class.  If you take care of most of these far in advance of the trip itself, you can relax and enjoy the trip with your students.


Step One: Where and when to go?

The hike I took was in Solstice Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, approximately one hour's drive from central Los Angeles.  Unless your school is also located in the Los Angeles area, you will need to find an appropriate destination for your hike.  I would suggest you consider the following when selecting a destination:

  • Proximity to school "how long will it take to get there?" Again, Solstice Canyon is about an hour away from my school.
  • An interesting destination "what is there to see?" Solstice Canyon not only has incredible ocean vistas (it is Malibu, after all), it also has a small waterfall and the ruins of a former estate which burned to the ground in the 1980s (which provided an excellent opportunity to discuss fire ecology in the chaparral and point out evidence of other fire damage and cases of specific plant adaptations).  In terms of fauna, Solstice Canyon has many lizards, snakes, and birds of prey.
  • An appropriate trail "can my students physically handle this trail?", "are there unacceptable dangers on any part of the trail?" Although there is a fairly rigorous portion of the hike towards the beginning of the trail, it's not too challenging for students that are generally fit.  Besides that initial incline, most of the trail is fairly level and there are no portions of the trail that present any danger of falling or other serious injury.  
  • When should you go? "are certain times of the year or day better to go to this particular destination?"  We went on this hike in late October.  I wanted to go much earlier in the school year, but I was concerned with the high temperatures in August and September.  Unfortunately, you can't always plan ahead perfectly when you're dealing with the weather: it ended up being unseasonably warm when we hiked.  However, you should have some basic idea of when to go, depending on the climate of your region and what you're hoping to see (i.e., you probably shouldn't plan on exploring the autumn leaves of a deciduous forest in January).  A second hike my group took later in the year required consulting a tide calendar to know when our destination was and was not going to be submerged under the high tide.


Step Two: Securing Transportation and Access

Another essential point is securing transportation.  Although some districts may provide buses eagerly, you may have to be more creative with getting funds to pay for transportation.  Because I had only around 30 students and 3 adults, we could all go on one bus provided by the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club.  Again, providing funding and guidance to take urban students out to natural areas is the raison d'être of the Sierra Club's ICO program.  I suggest you explore that option as early as possible.

Depending on your destination, you may need official permission to take a school group there.  In my case, because we visited a site managed by the National Park Service, the Sierra Club's ICO program contacted the Park Service and although we didn't technically need "permission" to visit the site, that advance preparation allowed a Park Ranger to accompany our group on the hike.  Again, I can't overstate how much we depended on the Sierra Club's ICO program to make this trip a reality. (thanks especially to Elizabeth Neat, our ICO contact and trail guide!)


Step Three: Permission Slips, Parents, and Preparation

My school district requires a permission slip be on file for any field trip and each of these slips contains medical information for the students.  This is a great way to become aware of any medical conditions that students may have that might interfere with their ability to fully enjoy the experience (e.g., asthma).  It is helpful then not only to distribute and collect permission slips, but to review them as well to be aware of any potential problems before you are out on a trail somewhere.  Permission slips are a great way to keep parents informed about what you are doing in class and I usually provide my cell phone number to parents just in case they have any questions or concerns about the trip itself.

In addition to making sure students receive and return their permission slips, I inform students what to bring (appropriate shoes, clothing, snacks) and what not to bring (books, headphones, impractical clothing/shoes) both when I initially distribute the permission slips and on the class meeting prior to the actual trip.  One thing that some students fail to prepare for is how thirsty they might become on a several mile hike.  I usually buy a case of bottled water and distribute the bottles to students on the bus just to make sure everyone is adequately hydrated on the day of the hike. 

All told, I would recommend passing out permission slips at least 2 weeks in advance of the trip to make sure that all students can go and any paperwork required by your administration can be filed far ahead of time.   


Step Four: Chaperones

As a final consideration, you will probably need at least one other adult to accompany you on your trip (and many more depending on the size of your group... again, I have only 30 students in my environmental science class).  This adult can be a leader from a partner organization, a parent or adult sibling, or another teacher. 

On this particular hike, we had two Sierra Club leaders, a Park Ranger, an adult sibling of a student, and one other teacher besides myself... for a total of 6 adults.  Although this 5 to 1 student to adult ratio was probably more than enough for a group of 30 high school students, the more adults the better*

*Just make sure the adults are fit enough to hike too!


120 minutes

The sierra club provides a great warm-up and reflection as part of their student guide, and I distribute this to all students on the bus ride to the destination.  If they choose, they can complete the first section ahead of time because it mainly focuses on their prior experience with nature and some of their habits that relate to conservation and respect for the environment.  Otherwise, the entire sheet, including the reflection are due as homework on the next class meeting.    

Apart from the warm up and reflection, there isn't any lesson here, per se.  It's really just an opportunity for students to appreciate the difference between their daily environment (urban, dense, inner-city) and a natural setting.  Although a lot of opportunities will surely arise to connect course content with the sights and sounds along the trail, to try and layer a specific content lesson on top of this seemed unnecessary to me.  There is a bit of skill to just being a resource rather than the "teacher" for the day, but your own enthusiasm will be contagious, so enjoy your time and the students probably will too.  I tend to just provide supplemental information and answer questions when they arise out of students' own curiosity and interest. 

One thing I do make sure to encourage is for students to use their smartphones or cameras for taking pictures or videos of organisms and environmental features they observe so that they can be included in their reflections that they write after the hike.  Yes, this opens the possibility that students could use their phones for texting or some other activity, but as long as you can manage to move around to different groups of students on the trail, it's easy enough to discourage that kind of use.


Once students get to the site of the hike, I make sure all students:

  • have adequate supplies of water
  • have protection from the elements (sunscreen, removable layers, hats, etc)
  • understand that they can not disturb the natural area (by taking or leaving anything)


Once the walk begins, it is helpful to have at least 2 adults, one in the front to control the pace and make sure no student gets ahead of the group, and another in the back to make sure no students are left behind.  If there are only 2 adults, I prefer to walk in the back to make certain that I'm kept aware of any student that may be having a hard time keeping up with the group. 

If there are more adults, I prefer to move forward and back through the whole group to engage as many students in discussion as possible.  Often enough students ask me questions, but you may need to point our specific connections to class content.  (For example, I pointed out all the short vegetation and mentioned we were walking through a chaparral, I then asked them to make the connection between the abiotic environment and the biotic community we were observing and they said the plants were short because water is scarce.  I then pointed out there were some tall, green trees in the ravine below us.  Once we arrived there students saw that there was a stream running through the ravine, the students explained that the larger plants could grow there because there was water.  This wound up being a good review on the concepts of limiting factors and adaptation to the environment.)

Reflecting on a Walk through the Chaparral

Following the hike, I ask students to write a reflection.  Since it was a fairly long bus ride back to school, several students spent that time writing their reflections.  However, I really don't mind if students spend that ride socializing, relaxing (this much physical activity was actually quite taxing for some students), or just resting in quiet contemplation of the day.  Therefore, I assign the written reflection as homework for students that don't complete it on the day of the hike.

Although I ask students to try and use as much vocabulary from class as possible when writing their reflections, I'm not too worried if they focus more on the sights and sounds of their experience.  The real intent of the reflection is for them to do just that: reflect on the experience of being out of the urban environment and spending a few hours in a natural setting.