March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

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.

References:

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.

Resources:

Attend a Monterey Bay Aquarium teacher professional development institute and learn more about integrating field investigations into your curriculum. http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/education/teacher-programs

Learn more about tracking litter with Instagram at http://litterati.org.

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: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

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For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.

The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.

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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: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.