A Problem Based Learning Unit: Ecosystems

Wow – I can’t believe it has been a full two months since my last post.  While I haven’t been blogging, I have been busy creating instructional materials for my students (and then of course sharing them via my TeachersPayTeachers shop).  My students are just now wrapping up their first unit on ecology and ecosystems. This year, I decided to try “problem based learning” units.  I will admit, I am by no means an expert on this topic.  It is however, in my understanding, a way to improve student engagement and get students operating at higher levels of thinking.  While I provided students with the materials and resources necessary to solve the problem presented, they had to design the solution based on their understanding of the material.  They also had to apply the general ecology concepts they were learning to specific, real-world situations. Since attending the national NSTA conference last year, I have really focused on implementing the NGSS standards (while still meeting my own district’s curricular standards, of course).  This unit was designed to meet the following Next Generation Science Standards: They will be able to: ·      develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem (NGSS MS-LS2-3) ·      construct an argument supported by evidence that changes to components of an ecosystem affect populations in that ecosystem (NGSS MS-LS2-4) ·      evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services (NGSS MS-LS2-5) ·      construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for the role of photosynthesis in the cycling of matter and flow of energy into and out of organisms (NGSS MS-LS1-6) We started off the unit with this question: What happens when something disrupts the ability of an ecosystem to meet the needs of the organisms in it?  Students were also provided with their PBL prompt:

Invasive species are a serious threat to the health of the Great Lakes ecosystems. You have been selected to investigate the impacts on the Lake Erie ecosystem of a specific invasive species – what is currently happening, what we can predict may happen, and the potential outcome if nothing is done to address the problem.  Then, you will identify actions we can take to prevent further damage by the species, such as measures to stop the spread of the species as well as control its current population.  Your plans will also take into account the social and economic considerations of the human population in the Great Lakes region.  You will present your research and action plan in a format of your choosing.  Your options include the creation of a website, the production of video/slideshow documentary, a town hall meeting style presentation, or a traditional report.

Before students could even begin to design solutions to invasive species, they had to understand how healthy ecosystems worked.  We spent a fair amount of time working with basic vocabulary and concepts, such as biotic and abiotic factors, relationships in ecosystems, and food chains and food webs.  Students explored and predicted how changes in biotic and abiotic factors would impact ecosystems in this activity.

And they created food chains and food webs from “field notes” that required them to use vocabulary (preys on, predator to, producer, etc.). I actually used two versions of this — the first was the NSTA activity that inspired this material.  I found in a recent Science Scope issue an activity just like this, where students were presented a chart of “field notes” about a pond ecosystem and had to build a food web from the information provided.  We completed that one together, reviewing which way the arrows point and remembering to include where producers get their energy from and so on.  To assess student mastery of this concept at the end of the unit, students completed the version linked to the left. In addition to these application-type activities, students were assessed through exit tickets and traditional quizzes.  Students took a quiz on general ecology concepts at the end of the first “section” of this unit (the healthy ecosystems stuff), and then we moved on to a look at invasive species and the damage they can do to an ecosystem. I used this great site called Newsela to introduce invasive species.  Newsela is a news website with tons of current event articles that have been rewritten at various grade levels.  When you find an article you want to use, you can adjust the reading level before printing/assigning to students/etc.  The articles are free, and I have used this a TON in my classroom this year.  The only thing I am not a fan of is their quizzes – they are really basic and require very little critical thinking.  The articles themselves though are AWESOME! Anyhoo, I used a news article about lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico to introduce invasive species.  We also read about cane toads in Australia in our Life Science Daybook texts, and we read several other news articles taken from Newsela and our local “Newspapers In Education” section of the Erie Times News.  Students were able to read, discuss, and learn from real life examples of invasive species and the damage they can do.  In addition to lionfish and cane toads, they read about nutria in Maryland, stink bugs in North America, asian carp in the Mississipi River and Great Lakes, tegu lizards in Florida, California king snakes in the Canary Islands, the emerald ash borer in Pennsylvania, and other aquatic invasive species in Lake Erie.  As we worked on the unit’s final essay, brainstorming evidence to scaffold them into constructing these essays independently, it was so exciting to hear them name these species and explain the damage they were doing.  They totally took ownership of these topics, and through various “jigsaw” type activities, became “experts” on these issues. We also did a really fun ecology detective type activity called “The Mystery of the Silent Night: Where Have All The Tree Frogs Gone?” They LOVED this one! Sifting through various clues (everything from diary entries to newspaper articles, advertisements, company memos, etc.), students had to determine the cause(s) of a sudden decline in the tree frog population in the fictional town of Mayberry.  They then had to write a “Claim-Evidence-Reasoning” paragraph to support their explanation, which I assessed with the rubric linked here. The final unit assessment was the Invasive Species Project, which had students researching a Lake Erie invasive species and designing a solution to either prevent its spread or decrease its population.  Students worked in groups, selecting their species randomly through a “drawing” from the top 10 invasive threats to Lake Erie.  They created a “Wanted” poster for their species and then developed a proposal for their solution to present to the class. I have included teacher and student instructions, rubrics, and a research organizer for this project in my TpT store. Students also took a multiple choice test on the unit’s vocabulary and completed an essay assessment in which they answered the unit’s original question.  Because it was the first essay test they have done, we did the planning together.  We broke down the original question (What happens when something disrupts the ability of an ecosystem to meet the needs of the organisms in it?) and developed a structure for student responses.

What happens when something disrupts the ability of an ecosystem to meet the needs of the organisms living in it? Paragraph 1: How does a healthy ecosystem work? Paragraphs 2-4: Give a specific example of a “disruption” to an ecosystem and explain how it affected the ecosystem Paragraph 5: What can humans do to prevent these “disruptions” that throw off the balance in ecosystems? What can humans do to “fix” disruptions that have already occurred?

This unit was definitely a success, and I am constantly impressed with the level of work I get from my students.  They did an awesome job with all of these activities, and it felt really good to finish a clear, cohesive unit and feel like I kind of know what I’m doing! Yay for Year #2!

Simulating An Oil Spill Clean Up

My students are continuing their year-long study of energy by investigating its ties to Earth Science, particularly in the form of fossil fuels.  My goal in this unit is to demonstrate the effects of using fossil fuels on the environment.  While certainly a big impact of fossil fuel use is climate change, my focus in this unit is the environmental impacts of extraction.  (I plan to get into climate change in the next unit, as we examine climate and weather and their impacts on ecological systems.)

In my last post, my students investigated the effects of surface mining on “Earth Cookies.” I wanted to find a similarly hands-on activity to investigate oil extraction, particularly off-shore oil drilling.  I came across an idea online to simulate an oil spill clean up using vegetable oil, food coloring, and student creativity.  From this basic framework, I created a set of instructions and student printables for this activity.  You can find it at my website:

oil spill clean up student activity hands-on learning

$5.00 PDF

First, my students learned about oil by exploring the EIA Energy Kid website.  We also watched a short video on the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska 1989, and read about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.  Finally, students created a chart to list the different tools and strategies that are used in the real world to clean up oil spills.

The list they created included:

– booms  (that contain or corral oil slicks)

– skimmers (that scoop oil from the surface)

– sinking agents (that bind to oil and make it sink to the bottom)

– sorbents (that absorb oil)

– biological agents (fertilizers that speed up plant growth and therefore biodegradation)

– dispersants (that break petroleum into small droplets)

Working from this list, students created their own devices that fulfilled these different purposes.  I provided students with a number of supplies, from cotton balls and string to corks and craft sticks.  They then worked in small groups to develop booms and skimmers, and to identify what materials they would use for sorbents and sinking agents.

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This took about two 45 minute class periods, and they came up with some really creative ideas.  You can see some of their designs below:

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After this engineering activity, students created an oil spill to test their strategy.  One student acted as the group’s recorder, documenting the evaluation of each device and the group’s observations.

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This activity was definitely a success.  I was able to incorporate engineering activities into the unit, and students were able to see the challenges of removing oil from the environment.  While climate change has been a hot topic in terms of fossil fuel use, it’s important to remember these energy sources can affect our environment in other ways as well. Finally, this activity will help my students during the upcoming unit assessment, which will ask students to represent various stakeholders in a discussion over a town’s energy decisions.  Stay tuned to hear more about that activity!