September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

Staying Local – Investigating the Schoolyard

Posted: Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

by Joey Noelle Lehnhard

Exploring a local schoolyard ecosystem is an accessible, engaging, and relevant way for students to investigate life science topics. Contextualizing ecology by investigating the life in your own schoolyard can be deeply enriching for students. It also allows students to later apply their learning to a variety of ecosystems including rainforests or the deep sea, which otherwise may be too abstract for elementary students. Spending time outside exploring and investigating their environment also contributes to conservation behavior later in life (Wells & Lekies, 2006). Informal science centers can help with resources such as locally relevant place-based curriculum, professional development, as well as by providing additional outdoor spaces for students to explore.

To learn more about an ecosystem, ecologists typically use a tool known as a quadrat to define a specific area where they collect biodiversity data. Quadrats are used both on land and in aquatic environments. Students can replicate this in their schoolyard. Scientists and students use this tool to count the number of organisms, number of different organisms, and/or percent coverage (i.e. 75% of the plot is covered by nonnative grasses) within the quadrat. Quadrats are great tools for elementary students as they help focus and manage the outdoor experience, ideally with groups of 2-3 students assigned to each quadrat. Traditionally, they are meter or half-meter squares made of PVC pipe. Small hula hoops and even stretched out wire hangers can function as quadrats – anything for which the area can be calculated will suffice.

N_Lehnhard_Photo_1 copy

A year-long quadrat data collection project is a great way for elementary students to practice authentic science outdoors. Each month during the school year, students can return to the same spot to take data on their quadrat. Students can explore a variety of topics in this way. Here are a few data collection ideas to get you started:

  • Biodiversity–Students can take biodiversity data by counting the number of different species they find in their quadrat. Combining that data with rainfall and temperature data, students may be able to find patterns in how the seasons relate to the abundance and biodiversity of living things.
  • Biotic and abiotic factors–If students are not quite ready for biodiversity, they can draw a picture of five things they see in their quadrat. Then, back in the classroom, they can classify the objects into living and nonliving things. Each month, they can count living and nonliving things and see if a pattern emerges.
  • Needs of living things–Students can identify things in their plot that provide animals and plants with what they need to live. Back inside, you can discuss whether your schoolyard is a good home for plants and animals and perhaps decide to make it a better habitat for living things through a habitat restoration project.
  • Adaptations–Each month, students can make a scientific illustration of one living thing they find. Then, they can connect its structures to functions that may help it survive in the schoolyard habitat.
  • Their own ideas–Students may think of other questions they have about their area of the schoolyard. You can invite them to suggest a testable question to collect data on throughout the year.
  • Human impact–Students can take data about human impact, such as the presence or absence of litter or invasive species. Students can count the number of pieces of litter they find and track that throughout the day, week or year. Then, you can discuss how we can all help keep our schoolyard healthy or even develop an action plan that will encourage conservation.

This type of long-term data collection project is in line with project-based learning and engages students in many Next Generation Science Standards practices, including asking questions, planning and carrying out investigations, and analyzing and interpreting data. Repeated data collection over time can help students feel comfortable and confident taking data as well as engaging in science in the field. Using their own data to learn and practice analysis and writing may increase ownership and student motivation. And, learning more about their local ecosystem connects to students’ prior knowledge and contextualizes science concepts. This could also be adapted to support the NGSS Kindergarten LS1-1 Performance Expectation: Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.


Wells, N. M., & Lekies, K. S. (2006). Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children Youth and Environments16(1), 1-24.


Attend a Monterey Bay Aquarium teacher professional development institute and learn more about integrating field investigations into your curriculum.

Learn more about tracking litter with Instagram at

Joey Noelle Lehnhard is a Senior Education Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and is a member of CSTA.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

Leave a Reply


California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.