Archive for the ‘life science’ Category

Yesterday I started posting all of my digital notebook documents for 6th grade science, beginning with the scientific inquiry unit. Today it’s on to ecology! Same as before, all of these are Google Apps docs that you can copy, adapt, and use however you’d like with your own students. For more info about why I use digital notebooks and how to set them up, check out my digital notebook page here.

Ecology Unit

ecology mouseoverThis unit is designed to teach students about the complex interactions and relationships between organisms and the environment in different ecosystems. The majority of the unit focuses on population interactions and energy flow in ecosystems, but it also dabbles a bit in natural selection to help explain adaptations (evolution is more thoroughly taught in my school at the 8th grade level). This unit culminates with a trip to a very unique ecosystem near my school: the mangrove wetlands of Qatar. If you’re teaching ecosystems, I highly recommend that you tailor it to the local environment to make it as authentic as possible! (more…)


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When I first arrived at my school 4 years ago, outside the new elementary science lab was a large sandpit surrounded by a fence. In the middle of that sandpit was an empty swimming pool.

My initial reaction was WTF? Then it was explained to me that when the school recently expanded the intent was to build an outdoor pond area. Unfortunately this desire wasn’t communicated clearly to the construction company, who interpreted “pond” to mean “pool” (such is life in Qatar). So we ended up with a swimming pool in a sand pit…. grrrrreat.

Thus began my 4-year quest to transform this wasteland into something of educational value. Since our school is located in the often-sweltering desert city of Doha, students don’t have much of an opportunity to explore the outdoors. They don’t have the same connection with nature that I was fortunate to have growing up in the woods of Connecticut- which is a problem if we expect our students to care about the environment or life sciences in general. (For a great read on this subject of “nature-deficient” kids, check out Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv) So my vision was to create an outdoor classroom, or as a wrote in the grant proposal:

To create a naturalistic outdoor learning space where students can be inspired to learn about the natural world even in the confines of our urban surroundings.  Upon entering the outdoor classroom through a vine-covered gate, students will be immersed in a lush, active ecosystem, surrounded by a diversity of plants and animals: butterflies pollinating flowering bushes, birds nesting in trees, and fish thriving in the pond. Opportunities for learning in this natural setting will be diverse as well, from learning about life cycles by growing vegetables in the planter beds, to collecting weather data using meteorological tools at the weather station, to understanding the relationship between sun and shadows on the sundial patio. 

It’s taken 4 years with several setbacks along the way (unsuccessful applications for funding, multiple contractors with conflicting visions, and many different designs and revisions), but I’m happy to report that it has been well worth the effort. This year our outdoor classroom has finally taken shape, and  it is a swimming pool sandpit no more! 🙂

Here are some of the features of our new learning space:

Koi pond and waterfall: Not only is this the atmospheric centerpiece for the area, it’s also a wonderful tool for the 4th grade to learn about a real live ecosystem. Producers, consumers, and decomposers are all present in the pond to observe and learn about how they interact. The wooden dock enables us to easily (and safely) collect water samples for closer study.

Human sundial:  Kindergarten and 5th grade students both learn about objects in the sky, and a human sundial is a great way to observe how the Earth and Sun interact. Kindergarteners can observe how their shadow changes length and direction over the course of the day, and 5th graders can puzzle about why you need to stand in certain spots at different times of the year to make the sundial work correctly. For more on how to make a human sundial, read my previous post.

Tortoise habitat: How does Eddie the tortoise survive in the desert? 1st graders compare the form and function of desert tortoises with the turtles we have swimming in our lab aquariums.  3rd graders study the adaptations of desert animals to figure how Eddie beats the heat (hint: he’s currently hibernating under the sand!).

Weather tree: Even though the weather in Qatar is almost always sunny, our 2nd and 4th graders learn there’s more to the weather than that! Our weather tree is equipped with digital thermometers to keep track of temperatures over the course of the year, a psychrometer to measure the (often terrible) humidity, a barometer to track air pressure, and an anemometer to gauge the speed of the wind. Oh yes, there’s a rain gauge too- but in case you’re wondering, it’s empty.

Gardening beds: As long as you avoid the summer months, Qatar with all its sun is a great place for a garden. 2nd graders can grow beans to observe how they grow and change throughout their life cycle, and 3rd graders can experiment with different types of plants to see which are best adapted to the desert climate.

Renewable energy investigations: How can we harness the renewable power of the sun, wind, and water? 5th graders learn about energy sources by designing solar ovens, and then testing their efficiency at heating up a cup of water. For next year we’ve also ordered some K’Nex renewable energy kits, so we can experiment with the design of wind turbines, water turbines, and solar cells.

But wait- that’s not all! Besides scientific pursuits, the outdoor classroom is also a great setting for art, writing, or any activity that benefits from a natural surrounding. With water and many flowering plants the area is a haven to local birds and insects, so there’s plenty of life buzzing about to inspire words or pictures.

I must admit I’m going to miss having this right outside my doorstep next year when I move up to the Middle School, but you’d better believe I’ll be bringing my students down here for visits!

Many thanks to Exxon Mobil for their generous grant to fund construction, Hussein Jameladin for transforming the swimming pool into Doha’s largest man-made waterfall (out of recycled playground structures!), Khaled Mansour and company for completing many of our unfinished projects, and the Doha Public Gardens for donating so many of our plants and trees.

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We just completed our Kindergarten unit about living and nonliving things. As with all our elementary science units, we collect pre and post assessment data, in order to get an overall idea of how well students learn the intended concepts. Of course the main idea of the unit is differentiating between living and nonliving things, so we focus our pre and post assessment on this skill with a simple paper and pencil activity:

I remember back in my grad school days reading a study about student pre-conceptions (don’t you dare call them misconceptions now!) about what’s alive and not alive: I believe it was a study by Inagaki and Hatano (2002) reviewing different studies of conceptual change in children to learn how they think about living things. Good reading, even if it’s not required for a response paper!

Our own data from 7 classes of Kindergartners shows some interesting trends:

I broke it down a little further by categorizing these items as animals (cat), plants (tree, flower), animate objects (car, cloud, computer) and inanimate objects (ball, teddy bear, block):

Not surprisingly, animals (the cat) is the most obvious to Kg students of all the items, but I was impressed that plants followed so closely behind. Our Pre-K students do have a general plants and animals unit however, so perhaps that has some influence on this.

What’s most interesting to me is to notice which nonliving objects are misidentified the most: car, computer, cloud, and teddy bear are all misidentified by about 1/3 of the students! It’s pretty easy to understand why- 3 of them move and change, and 1 resembles a living thing.

Over the course of the unit, students learn about the characteristics of living things (they grow and change) and their needs. Students experiment by trying to grow seeds and blocks, also take care of a goldfish to learn about what it needs to live. In addition they play lots of sorting games to reinforce new ideas about what’s living and nonliving. How well does it work? Check out the post-assessment results:

Note: These results are missing one class that I haven’t received data from yet

Not too shabby. Granted this is not a very deep assessment (we have others for investigating students’ understanding in a more meaningful way), but for a quick check of factual knowledge this is good to see. It’s also useful to see what wasn’t learned as well, clouds appear to be especially confusing for some Kindergartners. Thinking about it, they do fit our characteristic of living things by growing and changing, and it’s difficult for students to investigate what clouds need or don’t need. So I’ll have to think more about this one- maybe the right approach would be a research investigation, posing the question Are clouds a living thing? and having students consult various resources (library books, websites, parent interviews) to collect “data” and then reach a conclusion as a class. Something for next year!

And that’s the wonderful thing about doing pre/post assessments (besides being a great example of learning for student portfolios)- it’s almost impossible to collect data like this and NOT have it influence and improve your teaching. So give it a try- I dare ya’!

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