Ecology is one of my favorite topics to teach (along with evolution), so I'm excited to write up this blog post on biomes!
In biology we begin the year with the characteristics of life, and then move into ecology. I like starting with ecology because it involves relatively easy concepts. Many students will have learned the basics in middle school, so it's not a scary way to start the year. When working my way through the content, I essentially just teach in the order of the levels of organization (start with population dynamics, move onto community interactions... you get the idea. End with biomes).
I generally don't have a ton of time left in the quarter, so if I get to spend 2-3 days on biomes thats a win. Since time is short I focus on the big picture- what causes these biomes? What patterns do we see when we look at a biome map? Why is biodiversity important within biomes? What is the human impact on biomes? Big picture concepts. What I DO NOT spend time on is having students memorize information about each biome. My goal is for students to walk away with an understanding of why biodiversity is important and how we can protect the natural world, not ramble off facts such as which biome receives the most precipitation and which biome has the greatest swing in annual temperature. (Stepping off soapbox).
Here is a list of some fun activities you can use to teach biomes:
TRAVEL BROCHURE: Let your students get creative and create a travel brochure for a biome of their choice. You can have them do it electronically or give them some old Nat Geo magazines to cut up and paste. Here is a free handout to go with the assignment.
MISSION BIOMES: Need a website for students to do research on each biome so they can complete their brochure? Check out this site from NASA.
INTERACTIVE GAME: If you teach middle school, you may want to check out this interactive game where students match an animal to the continent it lives on.
BUILD A BIOME: This online interactive allows students to build a biome based on plants, animals, rainfall, and temperature.
VIRTUAL FIELD TRIP: Check out this fun virtual biome explorer from Arizona State University. Not every biome is included, but it is really fun to play around with!
CLIMATOGRAMS: Want to include some graphing practice in your ecology unit? Have students read climatograms for each biome with this worksheet.
INTERACTIVE DIAGRAM: I spent a ton of time working on this interactive diagram students could explore. What took the most time was scouring Google Earth looking for cool places students could virtually explore for each biome. Students will also see what plants and animals live in each biome, where they are located on a world map, and analyze a climatogram. Included is the 7 slide interactive diagram and a Google form quiz.
HHMI: If you teach biology, you have probably checked out lessons from HHMI Biointeractive (and if you haven't, do so now!) This biome viewer includes an interactive globe where students can click on different biomes and learn more about them.
SPEED DATING: There are a few biome speed dating activities that are available for free on the internet. (I cant always find a reliable link so you will need to do a Google search).
I hope you can use one (or two!) of those activities!
Owl pellets are really fun to dissect during ecology. One concern voiced by some colleague is this- most students have already dissected owl pellets in elementary or middle school. By the time they get to high school biology, should we do it again? What are they really taking away from the lesson? If we do the dissection, how can we up the rigor?
All of those are valid questions to consider. I love doing the lab because owl pellets are relatively affordable (especially if you put students in groups of 2 or 3), and engagement is high.
Here are some ideas on how to up the rigor with high school students:
1. COMPARE PREY SPECIES- Depending on your budget, order both northwest and southwest pellets. You can have half the students dissect northwest pellets and the other have dissect southwest pellets. Compare the prey that are found and discuss the differences. Other birds of prey create pellets too- what would students expect to find in a heron or hawk pellet?
2. TROPHIC PYRAMIDS- After dissecting the pellets, have students turn the data into trophic pyramids. Students can create a pyramid of numbers using class data- for every owl (number of pellets you passed out), how many prey were found? They can also create a pyramid of biomass if you give them numbers to work with. Suppose an average barn owl has a mass of 500g and an average mouse has a mass of 20g. If one owl eats one mouse per day, what would a pyramid of biomass look like for 1 year? Have them work the math and draw it out.
3. ENERGY TRANSFER- Discuss energy transfer from prey to predator. You could give students hypothetical numbers (in joules or kcal) and have them calculate the percentage of energy transferred from one trophic level to the next. You'll want it to work out to around 10%.
4. SKELETON ASSEMBLY- If time allows, have students take their bones and re-assemble the prey skeleton. You can easily google an image of a mouse skeleton and have students glue on as many bones as they can identify.
Note: One thing to consider is that Native American students will not participate in this lab for cultural reasons. You will want to check in with any of these students a few days before and let them know what is coming up. I have them talk to their parents and give them the option to complete a virtual dissection or just excuse the lab and they can work on assignments for other classes.
Looking for a lab worksheet for an owl pellet dissection? Click here! I also have a blog post with more food chain and web activities you might want to check out.
Let me know if you have any questions! Rock on!
As a scientist and person who greatly appreciates the natural world, I love visiting national parks. They are spectacular places! You can weave them into science units such as:
Here are some activities you can use to show students the wonder of national parks:
1. National Parks Service: The NPS has a ton of free lesson plans you can explore. As you search, you can filter based on lesson type, grade, or park.
You can also show this video clip on how the national park service got started.
2. Virtual Field Trip: Have students take a virtual field trip to a park of their choice using Google Earth. All they have to do is type in the name of the park and begin exploring! You can have them look for natural landforms, watersheds, or evidence of human impacts on the environment.
3. National Park Bulletin Board: Have students choose a national park, complete some background research, and add it to an interactive bulletin board. (This is a great activity for a few extra credit points or an early finisher activity).
4. Travel Brochure: Have students create a travel brochure for a park of their choice. What should visitors pack? What cool landforms will they see? Any rare plants or animals?
5. PBS National Park video series: Check out this 6 part video series from PBS on National Parks .
6. National Parks Adventure: The Smithsonian Institute has an educator guide called "national parks adventure" that includes a series of lesson plans and activities on national parks.
This one isn't lesson plan related, but I got one of these National Park scratch posters as a gift and it is so fun! If you would like to visit them all some day, it's a must have (affiliate link).
Teaching about human impacts on ecosystems and future climate change projections can leave you and your students feeling hopeless and depressed. While I think it's important to teach the facts and not sugarcoat what is happening to our planet, we can also find ways to give students hope for the future and motivate them to push for change.
While watching The Lorax or making an art display out of recycled materials can be fun and entertaining, the impact it leaves isn't very large. Here are some ideas where students can really feel like they are making a difference:
1. CHECK OUT HANDPRINTER.ORG
Instead of just focusing on our carbon footprint, this website has ways to increase your "handprint," or positive impacts that help others take positive action and heal the planet on a global scale. Check it out!
2. PARTICIPATE IN A CITIZEN SCIENCE PROJECT
Taking science beyond the 4 walls of your classroom can be much more meaningful for students. Through citizen science, the data they collect and research they conduct can contribute to larger regional or even global studies. Find a citizen science project here.
3. FUND RAISE FOR A CAUSE
Try organizing a class (or campus) fundraiser for an environmental cause. My students have conducted fundraisers for Water Is Life and One Tree Planted. (Here are some free handouts I used for the water fundraiser).
4. HOST A DOCUMENTARY MOVIE NIGHT
Many documentaries can leave the students feeling helpless, but some end on a positive note. Some that end with a more uplifting tone include Racing Extinction and Biggest Little Farm. Try organizing a movie night for students on your campus so the impact is larger than your own classroom. Your student government might even help you organize!
5. WRITE LETTERS TO STATE LEGISLATORS
Look up state legislators and have students write letters to them encouraging them to vote for/pass bills with the environment in mind. You could even ask if they have time to be a guest speaker or do a zoom call with your students. If the thought of proofreading and editing all the letters makes your head spin, team up with the English teachers on campus and see if they can help.
What other ideas do you have? Drop me a comment!
Earth's oceans are a carbon sink, which is a place where carbon is stored long term. Oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It reacts with seawater, creating carbonic acid, which in turn lowers the pH of the ocean. This phenomena is known as ocean acidification. It will only get worse as we release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Oceans currently have a pH of around 8.1, but it is projected to lower to 7.7 by the year 2100.
What is the impact of ocean acidification on marine life?
Research is still being conducted on this, but there are a few things we know for sure. First, organisms that rely on carbonate to build their shells and exoskeletons will have less available. These organisms include coral, mollusks, sea urchins, starfish, and zooplankton to name a few. If they struggle to build shells, they are more likely to be eaten by predators and it can create a trophic cascade up the food chain. Other impacts could include lowering the blood pH of fish, changes in reproductive ability of marine life, and impeding with organisms ability to send chemical signals.
Ocean Acidification Lab
An easy way to show students the impact of ocean acidification on marine life is by soaking seashells in ocean water with various pH levels.
For this lab you will need (per group): 3 cups or beakers, 3 seashells, water, salt, vinegar, an electronic scale, and pH paper. Seashells can be purchased at craft stores, and I've even found them at the dollar store in the craft aisle.
Start by mixing up simulated ocean water (3.5% saltwater solution). Students will put ocean water in the first beaker, 75mL of ocean water and 25mL of vinegar in the second beaker, and 50mL ocean water and 50mL of vinegar in the third beaker. Next, have students take the mass of the seashells over the course of 3 days and calculate the percent change in mass. They will see the vinegar eat away at the seashell and a large reduction in mass. You can also have them measure the pH of the liquids over 3 days and see how it changes as carbonate is released (enter discussion on buffers!)
Following the activity you can discuss ways students can lower their carbon footprint so we can slow the rate of acidification in the future. If you are interested in a powerpoint lesson on ocean acidification and a lab write up for this activity, you can find it HERE.
Bored of teaching the carbon, nitrogen, water, or rock cycles? Spice things up by having students take a ride through each of the cycles with these interactive games!
In these games, students will roll a die at stations throughout the cycles and pick up paper tokens along the way. For example- in the rock cycle game, the stations include: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. In the water cycle game, stations include: clouds, plants, oceans, animals, groundwater, soil, lakes, rivers, and glaciers.
To set up the game you will need to print out station cubes and fold them (cardstock works best and will extend the life of your cubes). You will also need to print and cut station tokens and place them in cups around the room.
Assign students a random station to begin at. They will start each round by picking up a paper token and placing it in their cup. Then they will roll the die and see where it tells them to go next. I let my students go at their own pace and tell them once they have 15 tokens in their cup to head back to their seats. Then they tally up where they have been and start answering the questions on their lab paper.
Students really love these games and often ask to play again the next day. I also love that it solidifies how things move through the cycles and you can even discuss where things are stored throughout the cycle. For example- in the water cycle, water molecules can be frozen in glaciers for hundreds of thousands of years. Or in the carbon cycle, carbon can be stored in fossil fuels for millions of years. If students get stuck at a station over and over it's good to discuss why.
Want to check them out for yourself? Click on the images below!
Ecological succession can seem like a simple process... grass, shrubs, small trees, big trees. But how does an ecosystem evolve from nothing? I always begin this lesson by showing students a picture of earth as it was first developing and a picture of the earth today. Next I ask students- how did we go from this.... to this? How did our thriving ecosystems evolve from nothing? It really gets them thinking and leads to great class discussions.
Check out these resources to help your succession lessons be a success! (pictures courtesy pixabay)
1. Here is a powerpoint and card sort activity I created that you can use to introduce ecological succession.
2. This lesson plan from National Geographic shows the formation of a coral reef. It's pretty cool to look at succession underwater, not just below water!
3. Here is a free card sorting vocabulary activity I found on teachers pay teachers.
4. Here is a free lesson plan that looks at the succession that occurred following the eruption of Mount St. Helens
5. Here is a succession board game you can have students play. Looks fun!
6. Here is an online interactive game from Bioman on succession.
7. Succession occurs within aquatic ecosystems as well. Have students look at the succession of protozoa using this Carolina lab. (Don't have the funds to order protozoa? Here are directions to make your own hay infusion!)
8. Give students a scenario and have them draw a cartoon timeline of what would happen in the area over hundreds of years.
9. Most of your students have cell phones, so have them go outside and take pictures of primary and secondary succession in their neighborhoods. They can upload them and create a photo journal.
I hope you lichen these lesson options! (ok... that was lame)
WHAT IS CITIZEN SCIENCE?
Citizen science is when the public participates in scientific research. Every-day citizens share and contribute data with the goal of increasing scientific knowledge. You do not have to be a trained scientist in order to participate.
WHY YOU SHOULD TRY IT
Citizen science is great to do with students because:
Ready to try it out? Here is a list of websites and project ideas to get you started.
1. CitizenScience.gov is a government website that has a TON of project ideas and is a great place to start. You can collect data that will be used by NOAA, USGS, National Science Foundation, and even NASA.
2. The Great Backyard Bird Count is a website run by the Audubon that encourages students to get outside and start birding. They are looking for regional data where people can upload pictures and species of birds they see in their neighborhoods. Time to dust off those binoculars!
3. National Geographic has a list of citizen science projects, ranging from wildlife observation, measuring night sky brightness (light pollution), butterfly census, listening for frog and toad calls, and more.
4. SciStarter.org is a website put together by Arizona State University and the National Science Foundation. You can search for projects near you or online only.
5. Project Green Challenge is a website that gives students environmentally-themed challenges. You can register your school and enter to win prizes!
6. Zooniverse is "people powered research." This website has a ton of ongoing projects that also venture into other content areas outside of the natural sciences.
7. inaturalist Do you ever take pictures of insects and cool species in your yard or neighborhood? inaturalist is a website (and phone app) that allows you to upload pictures of your findings and share/discuss with fellow naturalists.
8. Captain Planet Project Hero is a PBL driven website where students can help threatened species and ecosystems in their area.
9. The GLOBE Program is looking for people to contribute data for cloud types, mosquito habitats, and land cover observations.
10. Project Budburst was created by Chicago Botanical Garden. Their goal is to uncover the stories of plants and animals affected by human impacts on the environment.
11. Gorongosa Webcams If you've ever used curriculum from Biointeractive, you know it's pretty stellar. In this lesson students study webcams from Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique and do animal identification.
12. Pollinator Live is a website that includes links to a bunch of citizen science projects centered around attracting and monitoring pollinators in your area. Teach students the importance of pollinators!
13. A Bioblitz event is where students identify as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time.
The water cycle is taught starting in elementary school. It seems like in high school biology when I get to the biogeochemical cycles (water, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus) the water cycle gets glossed over because we assume the students know it and it's too basic. But water is vital to life! It's important to take some time to dig a little deeper with the water cycle and there are ways to ramp up the rigor. Check out a few activities you can use to take a deep dive into the water cycle:
TAKE A RIDE THROUGH THE WATER CYCLE
Even though this activity is good for younger grades, older kids still enjoy it. In this activity, students roll cubes that tell them how to move through the water cycle. It allows students to review the steps of the process but also realize where more water is stored within the biosphere. You can download the game cubes here.
How much water do students use each day? At watercalculator.org, they can calculate their water footprint.
EVAPOTRANSPIRATION AND URBAN HEAT ISLANDS
In this free lab from ASU, students see first hand how evapotranspiration from trees can cool down an area and have an impact on the urban heat island effect. You will need clay terra-cotta pots and thermometers. You can download the lab for free HERE. If you would like to see more resources dealing with urban heat islands, check out this blog post.
WHERE DID EARTH'S WATER COME FROM?
Water has been around on our planet for a very long time. But where did it come from in the first place? You can students this Ted YouTube video:
SCALED MODEL OF EARTH'S WATER
We tell students that the amount of fresh water we have available is very small compared to the total amount of water on earth, but does it really sink in? In this lab, students create a scaled model of where the water on Earth is located. There are 4 different versions of this lab so you can differentiate based on the amount of inquiry and math you would like your students to do. By the end of the lab, students will see that our freshwater supply is very small and hopefully realize how important water conservation is.
What is virtual water? It is the amount of water used to produce a product. In this activity from California Academy of Science, students learn about the hidden water footprint of different products. You can download the lesson here.
THE GRACE SATELLITES
How do scientists monitor groundwater levels? NASA tracks water levels from space using the Grace satellites- super cool! They orbit the Earth and scientists measure the gravitational pull on the satellites in order to monitor how much water is underground (more groundwater = more dense = more gravitational pull).
You can find an article students can read about the grace satellites here, and check out some interactive maps with satellite data here.
ICE CORE LAB
What can we learn from ice cores? In this lab, students learn about how ice cores form, what we can learn from them, and how they are analyzed. It takes about 4 days to set up on your part, but the students love looking at these simulated ice cores. You can read a full blog post on how I made them here.
There are a ton of documentaries out there on water shortages and conservation. I showed my students one titled "Beyond the Mirage" that is available on YouTube. I chose it because it is centered around Colorado River water, which feeds into my home state of Arizona. If you live in one of the 7 states that uses Colorado River water, I recommend this video. If you would like video questions to accompany the video, click here.
I hope these help and you spend an extra day or two digging a little deeper into the water cycle. If you have any other favorite activities, leave them in the comments!
Models can be powerful tools when teaching science. They allow students to visualize concepts that can be difficult to picture in their heads.
If you ask students what the most abundant gas in the atmosphere is, their first guess is usually oxygen. And when you say no, their second guess tends to be carbon dioxide. When we talk about the composition of the atmosphere and the effect of greenhouse gases, students may picture the atmosphere being FULL of carbon dioxide... and rightfully so- statistics estimate that 45 billion tons of carbon dioxide are released every year. But how much is that?
I wanted to build a model of the atmosphere so students could see that there isn't very much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere relative to other gases.
I like that it is easy to see how much nitrogen is in the atmosphere compared to oxygen and other gases. So much easier for students to visualize!
I want to point out that whenever you use models in class, you need to discuss with students any limitations the model might have to avoid misconceptions.
Overall, the entire thing only cost me $9 to make and I had enough spheres left over to make another. Pretty cost efficient compared to ordering one from a science supply company!
If you would like to check out other resources I use when teaching about gases in the atmosphere and the biogeochemical cycles, check out this blog post.