Biodiversity Survey part 5: Making a Collection

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Objective

Students will be able to complete their work on the biodiversity survey project by creating a tangible product to showcase their observations and write a thoughtful reflection on the experience of being an amateur naturalist

Big Idea

A tangible product helps to tie up the loose ends of a long term project

Introduction

This lesson covers the final part of the biodiversity survey project, which is to make some sort of collection to organize some of the observed specimens in a somewhat more tangible way than the inaturalist website.

If this is your first look at any part of this project, you might want to start at the beginning to make sense of what's happening here.  The descriptions of how I implement this entire project in class are spread out over 5 lessons:

  1. Community Mapping and Introduction to iNaturalist
  2. Observing and Identifying Local Species
  3. Citizen Science
  4. Managing a Long Term Project
  5. Making a Collection

 

Unlike some of the other lessons in this sequence that actually can occur in a single class day, this is the cumulative part of the project and covers many, many days of actual class time.  Therefore, the focus here is really explaining the ways that students can tie the whole project together with a tangible product and a reflection on the entire experience of participating in the biodiversity survey project.

So, after completing the requirements of the digital portion of the biodiversity project, students write a final reflection piece that will be included with their finished product which can be either:

  • an insect collection
  • a plant collection
  • or a field guide

 

All of these options are described in the initial project description worksheet which I distribute on the second lesson in the sequence, but I will describe each option in more detail in the sections below.  Although the online portion the project (uploading observations to our iNaturalist project) described in previous lessons required students to individually upload 10 observations, they could choose to make their field guide, insect or plant collection in a group of up to 3 members.  Most students chose to complete their collections in groups, but a few students chose to make their own individual projects.  

 

Connection to Standards:

In this lesson, students will conduct research to answer questions and solve problems, acquire and use domain-specific vocabulary, and produce clear and coherent writing describing their experience working on the project.

 

Making an Insect Collection

As you'll see in the sections that follow, I didn't give a whole lot of guidance to my students on the actual collection part of the project.  In a sense, as this was the final project of the year, I was eager to see what they could accomplish on their own.  For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised and this segment of the project became a kind of lesson in laissez-faire teaching for me.  In short, I gave my students some basic guidelines and sat back and watched what they accomplished on their own.

 

Coming from the project description worksheet, the requirements for the insect collection option were described as such,

An insect collection consisting of at least 8 insects mounted, numbered, and identified.  The 8 insects must all be from separate species.  (please note: although spiders, centipedes, pill bugs (aka “rollie pollies”), etc, are not technically insects, they belong to the phylum arthropoda and can be part of this collection)

 

And that was it.

So how did I help get students from there to a finished collection?

 

1. I provided a few resources for my students:

 

2. I provided instructions on making and using a "Kill Jar":

  • Obtain and clean out some kind of small jar (preferably clear, colorless glass so that photos may be easily taken of insects in the jar).  Some students brought in small jars such as baby food jars, but I found it all around easier to use a slightly larger jar such as one for jelly or pasta sauce.
  • Carefully douse about 2 to 3 cotton balls (depending on the size of the jar) with nail polish remover fluid.  (I demonstrated how to do this in class because I didn't want anyone actually pouring the nail polish remover into their jar).
  • Seal up the jar tightly with the lid (unlike the jars little kids make to make "firefly lanterns", you can't punch holes in the lid of a kill jar if you want it to do its job)
  • When the time comes, place the unfortunate specimen into the jar and seal it (please note that this can be very troubling for some students.  The experience of watching an insect die in her jar was so traumatic for one student that she said that even though she routinely squashed bugs without a second thought, she felt like a "murderer" and decided to do the plant collection instead)  

 

3. Finally, and most importantly, I gave them lots of time and got out of the way:

  • I took about an hour on several class days to essentially repeat lesson 2 of the project and took students outside.  Students were very enthusiastic about throughly searching every nook and cranny of the campus for insects.
  • On other days, I gave students plenty of class time to use the identification guides to identify their collected insects, to make their collection box, and to use any available resource to deepen their learning (one of my favorite moments in this or any other project was when a group of students gathered around to watch a youtube video on how to pin insects into a collection box.  I neither suggested they take this route nor even knew the video existed, it was an entirely student-generated strategy and was a fantastic example of students practicing the skills necessary to be lifelong learners and problem solvers in an information-saturated society)

To label their specimens with identifications, most students hand wrote identifications on index cards and then cut the label out of the card and glued it into the box next to the specimen.  Next time I do the project, however, I'm going to suggest to students to type their identifications and then print and cut out the labels because the handwritten labels had to be so small (and some students wrote them directly on the foam) they turned out looking a little bit messy in an otherwise well organized collection that represented substantial time and effort. 

   

Making a Plant Collection

Much like the insect collection option, the plant collection requires a few resources and a lot of time to let students figure it out for themselves.

From the project description, 

A plant collection (leaves, flowers, seeds, etc.) consisting of at least 8 specimens mounted, labeled, and identified.  Each specimen must come from separate species.  The plant material should be affixed with adhesive to paper either on a poster display, individual sheets, bound as a book, or displayed in some other durable manner.  Try and add as much plant material as possible (e.g., collecting a leaf, a flower, and a seed from a tree is better than just collecting a leaf).

 

The plant collection was less resource-dependent than the insect collection, all students really need is some acceptable paper, a way to press the plant material, and some adhesive.  

  • I purchased some watercolor paper from an art supply store.  I chose it because it's very firm and durable and doesn't warp when exposed to glue or small amounts of water.
  • I got some basic Elmer's glue from my school's art teacher and mixed it with a little water in a dissection pan (I used what was handy in class, any baking sheet or small pan would work).  Students put their pressed plant material into the glue/water mix and then set it on the watercolor paper.
  • Although it's possible to purchase or make a more elaborate press to flatten the plant material, I took a decidedly simple route: since I'm the department chair, I have several stacks of heavy science textbooks in a corner of my classroom and had students carefully lay their plant material between two paper towels and then put that somewhere in the stack of books where they would be under a lot of pressure.  After a few days, most plants were pressed suitably flat to be affixed to the paper.  
  • Additionally, I also provided Audubon Society field guides for wildflowers and trees to help students identify their collections.  However, it should be noted that for this and the insect collection, students could also use the many guides available on iNaturalist to make their identifications so it isn't strictly necessary to have the hardcopies of the guides, though many students seemed to prefer using them.

 

Although some students chose to bind the pages of their plant collection into a small booklet, most preferred to make separate sheets (that incidentally made some natural art, suitable for framing) to display their specimens.  Whether displaying their plants in a book or on separate sheets, most students carefully hand wrote their identifications (scientific and common names) directly onto the watercolor paper sheet.  

Like the insect collection, students making the plant collection needed ample class time set aside to observe, collect, identify and organize the specimens in their collection.  Keep in mind though that since it's essentially the same project, just with a different collecting focus, this work can take place concurrently while other students are working on their insect collections. 

Please note, however, that because it takes several days for plants to be pressed flat enough to be mounted on paper, students should have their specimens ready for the press at least a week before the project is due if they hope to have it done in time.

 

Making a Field Guide

Perhaps the opportunity to make tangible collections was simply too tantalizing to pass up, but for whatever reason, I didn't have any groups choose to make a field guide.

From the project description, the field guide option was,

A “Field Guide” to the Ecology of Los Angeles (come up with an appropriate title) which includes descriptions and photos of at least 10 different species and 5 different ecological interactions.  The field guide must consist of species in the following categories:

    1. At least 4 plants, including a flowering plant, a conifer, and a succulent
    2. At least 4 animals, including an insect, a spider, and a vertebrate (bird, fish, mammal, amphibian, or reptile).
    3. At least 1 fungus (lichens are ok too)

 

What I expected most student to do if they chose to make a field guide was to produce it digitally (either as a powerpoint or word document) and then print it out and bind it in a book form.  Another option could have been to make it more of a "handmade" book with illustrations instead of photos, but this would have made an extra layer of work.  It would have been fairly simple to drag their photos and copy their identifications and descriptions straight from their iNaturalist uploads and into another document, but again, none of my students chose this option.  However, I would still include this option for this project in the future because I imagine that some students could make a quite interesting and useful guide to some of the biodiversity in their immediate neighborhood.  

 

Wrap Up: Final Reflection on the Biodiversity Survey

15 minutes

On the day before the final, when this project was due (both the 10 iNaturalist observation uploads and the insect or plant collection) we took 15 minutes to write an open-ended response to the question, "why did we do this project?"

This question wasn't asked to collect something for a grade (they were about to have a comprehensive assessment the next day), rather it was a chance for them to reflect on the "point" of the project and for me to collect some data on whether the project offered a successful path to the learning goals I had hoped the students would achieve.

Reading the student response below, I think it's clear that something valuable came from this extensive project, even if it's hard to put one's finger upon exactly what that was:

What I gained was exposure to something new.  Not many projects have one observing their surrounding[s].  Besides the bug collection being a new project I have not done before, the process taken to finish the assignment has become a new outlet.  Maybe the reason for this assignment was for that, creating a connection to our environment.  Maybe the reason was to pick up a habit of being more observant and mindful of the other species which we share space with.  Maybe it was to become familiar with some of the more common species around our area and to prepare us for more hands on activities.  I’m unsure of the reason for the project besides the learning aspect but I enjoyed capturing these organisms in photographs.  This captures the genius that occurs naturally without our interference.  Overall it was a fun project and I feel that the learning from this project occurs while creating it.  It isn’t a project to show what one can do but to learn along the way and share the knowledge.   

Ultimately, I think it's more important for students to share why their work was important than for me to tell them why it's important.  Learning takes place when students connect the dots for themselves.