Vertical connections, constructed using inquiry, give students the skills to reach new heights in both their academic and local communities. These inquiry projects, developed by middle level teachers, ensure that students use higher-level thinking skills to improve the community. By investigating local natural resource issues, students
- demonstrate an understanding of, and responsibility for, global and environmental issues;
- actively support and participate in classroom and/or community service projects; and
- demonstrate self-directed involvement toward improving the welfare of others (Tahoma School District #409, 2001).
In this project, designed to span grade levels, students culminate the school year by researching solutions to one of three local issues:
- The health of a local waterway,
- Species diversity and urbanization, and
- Designing a working biosphere.
Each project is connected to the previous year’s to give students a deeper understanding of how research can help citizens build a sustainable community. Teachers work together to plan field studies and guide students in presenting their findings to others in the community using models, PowerPoint presentations, a web accessible database, and reports from field investigations.
In sixth grade, the activities are hands-on, including the creation of a field guide of organisms. In seventh grade, students participate in an indoor presentation that combines the ancient art of locating wildlife in their natural habitat with a high energy video production. Then, they take these observation skills back outdoors to inventory wildlife at school, at home, and in the community. Finally in eighth grade, students put together a model biosphere and use technology to present and support their ideas with knowledge from units ranging from chemistry and energy to food production and simple machines.
By the end of three years, students clearly demonstrate that they can meet assessment guidelines for natural science inquiry developed in cooperation with the state office of public instruction (see Resources). Just like their teachers, students respond to the camaraderie of working with a team to make choices that will sustain generations to come. Additionally, the authentic feedback students receive from their group partners, teachers, and resource people in a teaching and learning community transforms the end of the school year assessment into a time of celebration.
Healthy marine ecosystems—Sixth grade
The purpose of this project is to create something that will be used to introduce next year’s students to the “life” in their local waterway, in our case the Puget Sound. This is not a “go see what you can find on the beach” field experience. Each student has a purpose for being there, with the primary objective to connect to the marine organisms. The experience is guided by having a specific focus—discovering organisms that might not be included in field guides.
Many factors contribute to successful field experiences:
- Chose a local environment as a focus. (For example, intertidal environments could be used as a focus to prepare students for visiting tide pools.)
- Prior to the trip, study the physical properties of the environment. (For the ocean, physical properties included currents, tides, waves, and heat storage.)
- Bring lessons into the classroom that will complement the exploration students will be doing in the field. (For example, students categorized shells by characteristics of organisms.)
- Put together a quality miniguide for the students that contains basic outdoor etiquette, basic descriptions of common species, and note-taking pages that will form the basis of individual student assessment.
- Tie together ecosystems and learn about how physical processes at work in the environment affect the systems of living things.
Before the trip, send home permission slips and recruit enough parents so that each group of four or five students can have a chaperone. We chose a local state park because of the easy access and low tide. In addition, emergency numbers, student medicines, cameras, and a cell phone are all key tools for the teacher. A pretrip “field-wear fashion show” consisting of layers of mismatched warm clothes can often break down the barriers of middle school fashion. It also never hurts to bring extra set of field clothes. Water, snacks, pencil sharpener, pencil, notebook, and extra warm clothes are essential for students.
Prior to the trip, have students make field guides of the organisms they might see at the lowest tide of the season, including writing descriptions of and sketching various organisms so they can describe them in detail. They also need to be able to identify the arrangement of the organism’s habitat. Observations, photographs or sketches, and field notes will be essential to the quality of the inferences students will make.
As a teacher, it is essential to visit the nearby site. Locate restrooms and potential trail hazards, estimate driving and walking times, and identify points of interest to bring classroom instruction to life. If possible, include the park manager or other volunteers and chaperones in the preliminary visit. Ask the park manager to provide multiple resource people to support small teams of students with both equipment and expertise. Also ask the park manager or natural resource professional to provide the maps and field equipment needed to collect data. Field vests work well for organizing and distributing the equipment to each group, and it is great to have everything ready and waiting when the students walk off the bus.
During the trip, the chaperones can provide instructional support by regulating the amount and type of interaction students have with marine life. Explain to students and parents that the chaperones’ role is to serve as encouragers of appropriate behaviors. Give students the responsibility to investigate and collect data. Use as little classroom style lecture as possible.
Once at the site, students need a brief orientation, including their equipment, assigned research area, time limit and large-group meeting place. Restate the research questions (in our case, “What is the overall health of Puget Sound?” and “What animals and plants are part of the Puget Sound marine ecosystem?”). They are then “set loose” with their chaperones, journals, and small learning groups. Give students an assignment that involves locating an organism, giving a short written description of it, and drawing a quick sketch. Have groups keep track, generally, of how many members of a species are ound. The quality of student descriptions will vary, but it’s important that students learn to make accurate descriptions.
Once back in the classroom, go through the field guide and evaluate students on the effort and the amount of detail put into the field assignment. As one instructor puts it, “The curriculum is embedded in the world around us. It’s our job as teachers to connect students to it.” Students leave with both the answers to the questions they brought, and new questions to research that grew naturally from their observations.
Interdisciplinary science: Biodiversity and development—Seventh grade
In seventh grade, students engage in a forestry unit that culminates in research for the University of Washington’s NatureMapping program (see Resources) The university maintains a statewide database identifying wildlife species population by bioregion. The data are used by students and communities in community planning, and serve as important baseline data for student researchers. The forestry unit is taught early in the school year. Students explore the four forest regions of the state; study the parts and connections within forest ecosystems including the interrelationships among plants, animals, and abiotic factors; understand predator/prey population relationships; and examine how forests change through the process of succession. This unit gives students the background knowledge they need for their inquiry research. The local zoo presents an interactive classroom program showing students local habitats and introduces terms such as field marks and search image. The presentation gives educators a chance to bring students to the field, while staying indoors. The presentation, which projects a number of different habitats onto an auditorium wall along with wildlife sounds, allows students to look, listen, and sense where animals might hide, nest, feed, and so on. The zoo educators also provide each student with a field journal to record the location, species, population, and identifying marks of wildlife they see. Students practice searching and identification skills at home as well as the schoolyard and begin to recognize the wildlife in their own communities. Wildlife observation skills increase sensory perception, and students are often surprised at the number of organisms they find in just an hour outside.
The culminating unit, Biodiversity in Our Backyard, shifts perspective from ecosystem concepts at the broad level to the forest right in the school’s backyard. Students map trails, identify trees, and study the plants that inhabit the area around the school. The outdoor activity challenges students to identify wildlife in the school’s forest habitat, a habitat at home, and another habitat in a commercial area of the city.
The big-picture questions are, “What biodiversity do we have in our community, and how does development influence it?” Students break this down to researchable questions such as, “What birds inhabit the Cedar River School forest in the fall?” or “What types of animals are no longer seen in the Maple Valley area?”
Because students’ data and results are organized and reported to the University of Washington data bank for NatureMapping, they must record observations in a systematic way. Currently, Idaho, Iowa, and Arkansas provide support for NatureMapping, but if it is not available in your state, students can begin to establish a database of their own using latitude and longitude to organize data for their particular region. Even though the investigation recording template is created by researchers in the NatureMapping program, students must explain their research methods in their final presentations. Students also research how the wildlife has changed in their city using interviews, videos, or library research. They conduct interviews with longtime residents of the community and ask them how the wildlife has changed in the area.
Most importantly, students are asked to recommend what actions, if any, the community might take based on their wildlife research. Students have several options through which to present their findings, including a PowerPoint presentation, an article for a newspaper, a letter to the editor, a website, or a video diary.
Collaborating to create a better biosphere—Eighth grade
With the support of the eighth-grade teaching team, each science teacher takes turns developing a unit that the others pilot and teach in unison during the science block. The culminating unit is an inquiry project based on Biosphere II, a tightly sealed glass-and-steel structure on 3.15 acres near Oracle, Arizona, in which scientists created seven complete ecosystems or biomes to mirror those of Earth (see Resources). In order to answer the question, “Using Biosphere II as a model, what is needed to keep three humans alive in space?,” students divide into groups of three to design the floor plans for a biosphere to sustain them indefinitely. Everything in the biosphere must contribute to their chances of survival. They consider the following criteria over seven two-hour class periods to prepare a PowerPoint presentation and model of their biosphere (for extra credit):
- Food: How will you maintain a healthy diet with minimal ecological impacts? (goats vs. cows, and the benefits of recycling nutrients)
- Chemistry: How are you going to maintain homeostasis of carbon/oxygen and nitrogen wastes while keeping a working water cycle going? (No clouds because there’s no room. Think condensation!)
- Energy/electricity: Where will you get your electricity? (Think renewable: Solar and biogas.)
- Physics/engineering: How can you deal with the heat and keep air moving to maintain a reasonable temperature? (Think of the space station and its sunny side or dark side.)
- Ecology: Why is it important to have other biomes in your biosphere and which ones would you include? (No zoos! Consider Biosphere II’s biomes. Think water filtration and supplemental food sources.)
- Problem solving: Crisis day. Solve your group’s randomly distributed crisis selected from the following options: 1) oxygen levels drop 2) waste is not decomposing fast enough 3) humidity is increasing 4) unintended species such as an insect or worm begin to invade 5) water quality is decreasing 6) people are not getting enough calories 7) human sewage not decomposing fast enough 8) one person gets a lethal infectious disease.
|Figure 1. Biosphere rubric.|
Floor plan drawing 10 pts ____
Shows overall layout and size of your biosphere
Balanced diet daily food menu with data table 10 pts____
showing calories per: day, year, five years
(include raw food source’s needs and foods made from them)
Energy source (electricity) 10 pts____
How electricity is produced—possible problems
How wind is produced using a Rube Goldberg machine
Chemistry and energy budget 10 pts____
Chemistry: Problems, solutions, and consequences
Energy use/budget: Problems, solutions, and consequences
Graphs of energy use for: one month (pie), five years (bar)
Ecosystems (focus on two) 10 pts____
Problems, solutions, and consequences for your two biomes
Food web for your two biomes
Energy pyramid for organisms in your two biomes
Crisis day 10 pts____
Create an experiment to solve an emergency problem
Final conclusion 10 pts____
On the day of presentation, each student must be able to answer any of these questions related to their biosphere. By grading gallery style, where each group presents to two other groups, each person is accountable to explain how the biosphere meets each of the criteria. Students begin to compare the quality of their ideas and debate their understanding of the concepts they have studied all year! Not surprisingly, it’s obvious that there is no one right way for the world to be, and room exists for individual preferences. The biosphere project culminates students’ middle school career by engaging them in ecologically responsible conversations about a world which they might one day create.
Vertical connections resonate well for teachers and students when members of teaching teams focus around a common framework and assessment guideline across grades. Each grade level also uses an education consultant to organize meetings, establish objectives, and document the work of both teachers and students. This provides time, energy, organization, flow, professional development credit, and feedback to the teachers who must meet the moment-by-moment instructional needs of middle school students. The project shows a high level of student engagement and achievement. As a result of these well-aligned activities, students leave for high school recognizing both their responsibility and resourcefulness as a small group of inquirers. They are well prepared for working together with their community to solve problems related to maintaining a balance between closely linked ecological systems. All of this fits together over the three years to give students the confidence they need to do science inquiry and share their thinking in ways that not only unite, but also sustain healthy communities.
Susan Duncan (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches middle school science in Beaverton, Oregon. Jerry Papers (email@example.com) teaches science in the Tahoma School District. Woody Franzen (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Pat Otto (email@example.com) are education consultants to the Pacific Education Institute (www.pacificeducationinstitute.org).
The foundation for these natural science inquiry projects came from the vision of Lynne Ferguson, Director of the Pacific Education Institute; Margaret Tudor, WDFW; and Nancy Skerritt, Assistant Superintendent of the Tahoma School District. Thanks to the teachers who have designed and taught these units over the past four years, Derek Clark, Jerry Papers, Robert Richert, Joelle Tweit, Jonathan Neil, Bud Cross, and Randy Sias, thousands of students are now actively engaged in issues that involve local ecosystems.
Natural Science Inquiry—
Tahoma School District—