Using native plants to increase scientific and environmental literacy of elementary students
In our experience, many students feel removed from their local environment and the impact of environmental problems. To combat environmental apathy, we seek to help students develop environmental knowledge, ethics, and “critical-thinking skills that will prepare them to evaluate issues and make informed decisions regarding stewardship of the planet” (NSTA 2003, p. 1). To achieve these goals, students must develop a more robust connection to nature around them (Roberts and Kruse 2019; Chawla 2015; Louv 2008). Indeed, time spent in nature provides numerous mental and physical benefits for children, such as a stronger sense of place, emotional regulation, improved scientific learning, improvements in motor fitness, excitement in learning, and many more (Gill 2014).
This article describes scientific, place-based investigations of local species and their ability to survive well, moderately well, or not at all (3-LS4-3) (NGSS Lead States 2013) while promoting components of environmental literacy (Table 1). To encourage students’ recognition of nature’s proximity and expand their environmental dispositions, we ask explicit, open-ended questions regarding the concept of wilderness/nature, possible uses of nature, and the extent to which humans should sustainably conserve nature (Roberts and Kruse 2019). Such questions aligned to each activity below are included in Table 2. Although these lessons were given to third- grade students, the activities provided are easily adaptable for all elementary, middle, and even high school students.
We began day 1 with a 10-minute discussion challenging students on the perceived dichotomy between humanity and wilderness. To guide this discussion, we drew a single, horizontal line on the board with the term wild labeled at the right endpoint and asked students, “What comes to mind when you hear the word wild?” As students answered, we nonverbally acknowledged their ideas, and once all ideas had been recorded, we explored possible antonyms with students of the term wild before settling on controlled, which we wrote at the left endpoint. We explained the concept of a continuum before suggesting a concrete example (e.g., dog, cat) of our own. Afterward, we asked, “What other things could we put on this line?” Because students know their ideas are valuable, student hands began to fly into the air to offer ideas, past natural experiences, and descriptions of their favorite hideaways. In our experience, students tend to label plants (e.g., grass, flowers, trees) as not wild, common organisms (e.g., birds, squirrels, rabbits) as moderately wild, and exotic organisms (e.g., tigers, eagles, monkeys) as wild but omit humans altogether.
After these examples have been placed on the continuum, we suggested, “What about a house?” Students often agree a house is controlled, to which we responded with “What about an old house that’s breaking down?” This time, students agreed this is more wild than the previous example, and after discussing the difference in wilderness between the two, we contrasted “wild” habitats (e.g., jungles, savannahs, etc.) with well-known locations in our community (e.g., parks, stormwater reservoirs, etc.). Students arrived at the idea that human interaction tends to make nature either less wild through confinement and suppression (e.g., houses, sport fields, neighborhoods) or more wild through protection and promotion (e.g., zoos, natural conservatories, state/national parks). Lastly we asked, “In what sense are humans wild or a part of nature?”
Following the discussion of human wildness, we shifted gears by asking “What wild things would we find near our school?” Once again, students were so energetic about sharing their personal findings and neighborhood treasures that we ended up overextending our time for this lesson. Once students have shared, we read Finding Wild by Megan Wagner Lloyd (2016). Throughout the reading, we paused and scaffolded students’ connection to our previous discussion of our local environment. For example, we asked, “How are the author’s thoughts about wild similar to your thoughts about wild?” “What do you think she means when she says, ‘the wild is buried too deep?’” and, “Why do you think the author wrote this book?” After the reading, we encouraged students to seek out wild things after school with their families and instructed them to bring long pants and closed-toe shoes for tomorrow’s activities.
As soon as students were allowed into our building, they were pushing down our door to boast about the "wild-ness" of their findings—so much so that a competition began around who had made the wildest observations. After the bell had rung and students were settled for the day, we allowed the students a more structured time to share while adding their ideas to yesterday’s continuum.
To reinforce scientific expectations, we played a quick game about observations. Between each set of partners, we placed three pencils, all with distinct defects (e.g., broken lead, scratch marks, and missing eraser). Students had one minute to describe, through writing and drawing, one of the three pencils. After the minute was over, students shared their observations with their partner and their partner guessed which pencil they drew. We ask, “Why are specific details helpful when making observations?” Answers were written on the board and doubled as expectations for scientific observations.
Before going outside, students were tasked with finding and observing one plant and one animal. We connected our expectations to this task by asking, “How could we apply the same observation process to organisms we find outside?” Connections to mathematics could be added here if students are expected to measure as part of their observations.
Once outside, we identified investigation boundaries, restricted blind spots, reminded students to remain within eyesight of the teacher and to not disturb the organisms in their habitats. It’s a good idea to be aware of any hazards on your campus, such as fire ants or poison ivy. As soon as we released the students, they turned on their heels and sprinted to make their observations. As students began their observations, we meandered between groups asking them why they selected their current location, assisted with observations, and discussed organisms’ positions on the wilderness continuum. When we noticed some students drew idealized organisms rather than observed organisms, we asked, “Why do you think scientists would rather study actual trees rather than the tree that they imagine?”
After five minutes, we pulled students back together and asked, “What might organisms look like if they survive well in this environment? Not well? Somewhere in the middle?” Students tended to say, “It’s growing! If it’s brown and dead-looking, it’s probably not surviving well.” Other students stated “I found a bunch of ladybugs, so I’d say that those are pretty successful! Maybe if something is hard to find, it’s less successful?” At this time, we introduced their next task; “You need to find three plants that are smaller than you. Of these three plants, you need one you think is surviving well, one that is not surviving well, and one that is somewhere in the middle.”
As they worked, we visited each student and discussed their drawings. These conversations proved helpful as a formative assessment. For example, one student explained that they were drawing a plant for “not well” because the leaves were drooping and falling off. After 10–15 minutes, we instructed the students to return inside and to wash their hands while we collected their drawings.
We began day 3 by handing back student drawings and reviewing the organisms students thought survived well, not well, and moderately well. Next, we explained that today we would learn about the species we saw outside yesterday and other species native to the Midwest.
Although yesterday some species were thought to be surviving well (e.g., Kentucky bluegrass), today students will evaluate the ecosystem’s survivability with the help of species cards (Figure 1; see Online Resources). Each species card has unique descriptions, whether native to the Midwest, and a point value (e.g., one, two, three) that relates to its impact on other species. The higher the point value, the more synergetic the species. For example, the honeybee is a three-point card because it is a major pollinator, while Kentucky bluegrass is a one-point card because it does not support organisms in this ecosystem.
We placed one set of species cards between each set of partners and asked, “What do you notice about these cards?” Students eagerly shuffled through and found organisms that they located during yesterday’s activity and identified the card’s components but were confused about the word native. Recognizing that native may be a new term for students, we asked, “What does it mean to be native to somewhere?” After we wrote ideas on the board with native at the center, we asked, “What word describes something that’s not native to an area?” We wrote the terms on the board and then stated, “Non-native is a word scientists use for something not native to an area.”
After deconstructing the card’s vocabulary, we followed the student’s curiosity regarding different point values. We told students to locate the yarrow and garlic mustard cards while we drew a Venn diagram of the two organisms on the board. We began this conversation by asking “What similarities can you find between these two cards?” After writing similarities in the overlapping portion of the Venn diagram, students noted there are more differences, which we follow with, “What differences are there between the two cards?” Students replied that one has flowers, one is native to the Midwest, and yarrow helps other species while garlic mustard does not.
After students have sifted through the differences, we connected back to the point-values of each card by asking “Why do you think garlic mustard is only worth one point, while the yarrow is worth three points?” Students tended to respond with “the yarrow attracts pollinators and helps other plants grow and the garlic mustard doesn’t attract any” and “the yarrow is native to the Midwest while the garlic mustard is not.” As we wrote these ideas on the board, we had students see if these characteristics are true for the other cards. As students vetted the remaining cards with these predictions, we worked with struggling students.
Returning to the large group, we asked, “After looking at the rest of the deck, what makes a card worth one point? Three points?” Students determined three-point cards are native organisms that support other species while one-point cards are non-native organisms that hurt or are indifferent toward other species. Once students have made this realization, we wrote the term invasive on the board and helped students break down the word’s meaning. Students often saw the “Inva-” and thought “invading” or “invasion.” We furthered this connection by asking “What happens during an invasion? What does it mean to invade something?” After these questions, students recognized that invasive species might “take over” an area. We also explain that not all non-native species are bad and some live perfectly fine in an environment.
To deepen student understanding regarding the benefits of native organisms we questioned, “You said that the cards with higher points help more organisms and are native to the Midwest. Why do you think that organisms that are native to the same area tend to help each other more than ones that are not native to that area?”
After a brief discussion, we instructed shoulder partners to select seven cards they would include in a garden. While students were working, we helped struggling students and encouraged deeper thinking. We noticed that some students choose three-point cards based solely on their point value rather than their ecosystem effects. To mitigate this issue, we asked each group about their reasoning for including three-point species. More specifically “Why do you think it is better to include [selected three-point card] more than [selected one-point card] in your garden? How might each species help or hurt the garden?” Not only did this encourage students to think about relationships within the ecosystem, but it scaffolded the upcoming assessment.
For the summative assessment, we handed out sentence starters for students to construct an argument using the species cards and their outdoor observations as evidence. In this argument, students selected and identified two species they would and would not include in a garden, respectively. While students worked, we differentiated for students with special needs by allowing them to verbally state their argument to demonstrate their proficiency in 3-LS4-3. This assessment challenged students to think about the cause and effect of the different organisms in their environment.
Students exceeding the standard accurately explained their selected organisms’ survivability and how both species affect other species’ survivability. Proficient students accurately explained either their selected species’ survivability or how the selected species affects other species. Developing students accurately explained their selected organisms’ survivability but inaccurately explained how either species affects other species, and beginning students were unable to explain how their selected species will survive and how both species affect other species.
For example, answers similar to Figure 2 would be marked as proficient because the student explained why their included organism would survive and provided a reasoning for why they would not include their last species but did not effectively state how little bluestem would affect other species in the environment.
Following our past three activities, students expressed interest in adding more native flora to the school grounds. To do this, we procured plant seeds and biodegradable jiffy strips from our local nursery for a small fee (approximately $25). The jiffy strips we selected are square peat strips that can be transplanted directly into the ground and are easy to transport outdoors when ready. When students got their hands in the dirt and began planting the seeds, we heard comments similar to “I can’t wait to see how big mine will grow!” and “I want to take mine home after and plant it around my house so that I can have a bunch of butterflies!” As the plants grew, we used students’ observations of the plants to have conversations around plant needs, growth, and development. As students cared for their seedlings, we noticed they even further develop their empathy for plants, a critical component of environmental stewardship.
Although we could not alter our school grounds, we visited a local native garden to transplant the students’ seedlings. This visit offered a plethora of future scientific investigations and experiences for all students that lie beyond the scope of this article. As one example, during our first visit, students compared their seedlings to plants found in the wild and considered how the local environment may have shaped the plants’ growth.
Additionally, we furthered student learning through an interdisciplinary discussion during a social studies lesson. We encouraged students to consider how human migration and colonialism have impacted environments by asking, “About 500 years ago, people from Europe came to this part of the world. Some historians say that these European settlers acted like invasive species; why do you think historians say these settlers acted like invasive species?” Thinking back to the species cards, students tended to say things like “maybe there wasn’t enough food for everyone,” “they stole land from the people who were already here,” “they brought new kinds of animals and plants,” and “they probably brought illnesses too.” To solidify the idea of human manipulation of the environment we asked, “How do you think the land around our school would look different if European settlers never arrived?” Student responses varied on this question but often centered on a return to untouched wilderness. Although this line of thinking is understandable, it often leads to the misconception that indigenous peoples did not manage the land at all. To address this misconception, we use this discussion as a turning point in our unit toward indigenous land management methods and how that shaped the local landscape.
While science content is a large component of scientific literacy, a more robust sense of care, place, and environmentally responsible skills further reinforces students’ understanding of natural phenomena. Through these hands-on experiences, students joyfully uncover their local environment and identify potential threats to ecological sustainability while developing a more robust sense of care, place, and devotion toward future environmental stewardship.
Download species cards at https://bit.ly/3P9K5wh
Chawla, L. 2015. Benefits of nature contact for children. Journal of Planning Literature 30 (4): 433–452.
Gill, T. 2014. The benefits of children’s engagement with nature: A systematic literature review. Children Youth and Environments 24 (2): 10–34.
Hollweg, K.S., at al. 2011. Developing a framework for assessing environmental literacy. Washington, DC: North American Association for Environmental Education. http://www.naaee.net
Lloyd, M.W., and A. Halpin. 2016. Finding wild (First edition.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Louv, R. 2008. Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin books of Chapel Hill, 2006. Print.
National Science Teaching Association (NSTA). 2003. Environmental Education Position Statement. https://www.nsta.org/nstas-official-positions/environmental-education
NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Roberts, K., and J. Kruse. 2019. Repairing the relationship between students and nature. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 92(1–2): 23–27.