September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 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.

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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.

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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:

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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. 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.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. 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.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.