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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!

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Curriculum & Planning, Lesson Plans

Save Fred

One of the first assignments I had my 5th and 6th grade students complete was something called Save Fred.  If you haven’t heard of it, the basic premise is that Fred the Gummy Worm was out boating when his boat capsized.  His life preserver has become trapped under the capsized boat, while Fred clings to its top.  Students must figure out how to get the life preserver out from under the boat without knocking Fred off.  The catch is that they can’t use their hands — they can only touch Fred, the boat, and the life preserver using four paperclips.  Students have to work together to find a solution, trying out different strategies and evaluating what works.

Students had to document their process, recording the strategies they used as they tried to Save Fred.

Afterward, I directed students to the Next Generation Science Standard’s eight practices of science and engineering, identified in the NRC’s A Science Framework for K-12 Science Education.  Students Think-Pair-Shared, and then as a class we discussed, which skills students had to use as they worked through the activity.  We talked about how the “Scientific Method” is not always the linear series of steps they had been taught — sometimes (most times!) scientists used these practices out of order. 

Overall, the activity was a great “ice breaker” for the beginning of the year.  Students were able to do something fun, get a little treat (they ate Fred and his gummy life preserver afterward), and begin developing those scientific practices right off the bat!

Download this NGSS Science and Engineering Practices bookmark from TeachersPayTeachers. Laminate, cut, and distribute to students.

 

Middle School, Science

Wednesday: Lunch Break!

So I am sitting in the lobby of the Westin – holy cow, this is a nice hotel! Apparently this is where all the New Teachers Academy cadets are shacked up… Gotta remember to apply for that for next year! I sure wouldn’t mind hitting up Chicago in 2015.

Anyhoo, the session I have been attending is an introduction to the NGSS standards.  I’ve been sitting at a table all morning with three people from Texas, one who spent a few years teaching in Alaska, and another guy who was born in my own home town – Erie, PA! He currently lives in Maine, but still – small world, huh! It has been pretty cool connecting with these teachers.  You can see below how well we hit it off:

clearly rocking the goggles
clearly rocking the goggles (not.)

But seriously now, it was cool to talk about these teachers’ experiences teaching in their very different environment. Apparently in at least some parts of Alaska, many locals have trouble accepting “outsiders.” That would be a serious challenge toward building the relationships so important to effective classroom management. On the other hand, I definitely heard some teachers discussing challenges I have in my own class – students being so worried about grades, they lose sight of the experiences and learning; the importance of extracurriculars; pressure from parents, etc. As a result of these pressures, the teachers mentioned, their students were often afraid to try and fail – which is a problem when incorporating the engineering aspects of the NGSS.  I have found my fifth and sixth graders don’t yet have that type of response to engineering activities, but at the same time, I can understand how high school students might worry about grades for projects that don’t quite work, or about peers looking down on designs that aren’t quite right.  Unfortunately, the failures are part of the learning process (and really scientific methodology all together), and students are missing out on this experience…

Anyway, lunch is over  – more on that later!

photo 2

Middle School, Science

Day 1: NSTA National Conference on Science Education

Business Card Sized PaperSo yesterday a fellow science teacher and I spent the day traveling from good ol’ Erie, Pennsylvania to Boston, Massachusetts for our first day at the NSTA’s National Conference on Science Education.  Today we will be attending the Professional Development Institute for a day-long program on the Next Generation Science Standards. Right now, I am (well, obviously updating this blog but also) waiting for my fellow teacher to get ready to hit the road!  We stayed last night in a hotel just south of Boston, so it will probably be a 40 minute drive to the Convention Center.

Side Note: I really have no idea how this happened, because usually I make great time on the road, but it was only supposed to take us 8.5 hours and it definitely took us closer to 10.  It was a long drive and kinda sucked. I mean, I have done long drives before (and alone at that!) from Erie to Charlotte (and on several occasions!), but this drive definitely felt longer. Maybe it was because we were literally on I-90 for like 400 miles (that’s just a guess, I don’t know exactly how many miles).

Anyway, I started off yesterday morning with my car packed and ready to go:

photo
Ugh, I hate mirror-selfies and this picture as a whole, but I don’t have time to be picky, and I feel like I need to justify how my leggings look is still cute and not ridiculously casual.

I definitely overpacked. However, my dilemma this morning was that I didn’t have enough clothes.  Last night, I didn’t want to bring up my huge suitcase since we were just staying here one night, so I tried to grab just a few clothes to wear today to the PDI session…  It left me with very little wiggle room this morning (although that might be a good thing because I sometimes have trouble deciding what to wear).  Anyway, I am doing black leggings, long white shirt, black vest, and maybe a scarf (haven’t decided).  I really hope I’m not underdressed… but I also really hate real pants. Maybe I’m wrong, but I like to be comfortable – and I think the learning that is going to take place today is way more important than my fashion decisions. (Because who can argue with that statement? Hah!)

Anyway, so now I am in Boston and ready to go! The PDI session I picked is called “NGSS 101: An Introduction to the Next Generation Science Standards.”  Basically, it is a look at the new standards, what they mean, and how to adapt teaching and classroom learning toward implementing those standards.  I expect to learn a lot… but I’ll let you know!

YAY FOR #NSTA14! 

When I saw this in the gas station (even though we were still about two hours away), it made me feel better.

 

Curriculum & Planning, Education, Lesson Plans, Middle School, Resources, Science

Simulating Surface Mining with Chocolate Chip Cookies

My 5th graders are working through a unit on natural resources, particularly our energy sources.  Having learned about the layers of the earth, the rock cycle, and fossils, we are looking at fossil fuels.  While they have built some background knowledge through books and online web sources (I love Energy Kids!), I wanted to incorporate  hands-on activities for each type of fossil fuel.

Since the first fossil fuel we are learning about is coal, I decided to use an activity I first learned about while working at Asbury Woods Nature Center. If you do an online search, there are many free resources outlining this activity.  The gist of it is that students receive a chocolate chip cookie and must “mine” the “coal chips” with a toothpick or paperclip.  They get to see how the cookie, which represents the Earth, is changed by mining – a visual representation of the damage done by surface or strip mining.

To gear my kids up for this project, I started the unit by showing a video: 300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds, available at YouTube.  This video is VERY information heavy, so I made sure to explain to students I don’t expect them to learn or remember everything. I asked them to listen for information about fossil fuels, specifically coal, and identify ONE thing they didn’t know (and now do).  I will admit that I like to push my students – I don’t expect them to master every task I give them, but I always want them to TRY.  And I am blessed to have students willing and motivated to do so!

After we watched the video, I discussed with them how the Industrial Revolution changed our source of energy from “muscle power” to “machine power,” which derives its energy primarily from fossil fuels.  We discussed how nearly everything we use and do each day is in some way created from fossil fuel power, and we brainstormed what might happen if suddenly we didn’t have that source of energy anymore.

After this class discussion, students read about fossil fuels from a volume in a set of books called Science Explorer.  The Science Explorer series are a set of thin books on a wide range of topics, and I actually prefer them to our science textbooks.  As they read, students worked together to make an outline of all of the headings and the important information found in each section.  This was a skill that was new to my students, so we did the first few headings together, and afterward, we reviewed what things students wrote under each heading.  You can see a sample of their outlines below:

 photo 11e6068c-59ce-4282-8e34-8d8a1829c05a.jpg

Then, students read about the mining and transportation of coal in more detail from the Energy Kids website.

Then, our activity started!  Briefly, students were given a set of instructions (class set), the supplies to mine their cookies, the graph paper worksheet, data analysis worksheet, and conclusions worksheet.  As a part of their data analysis, I provided the skeleton of the chart I asked them to create, as this is a skill that is relatively new to my middle school students.  It was a great way to incorporate math into the activity without taking up a ton of time!

Like I said above, you can find many free resources that explain this activity.  They can provide you with the instructions and maybe some follow up questions.  That said, the instruction sheets and student worksheets that I created are available for purchase at my Etsy shop, as well as TeachersPayTeachers. I love resources that look professional AND fun, even if my students and I are the only ones to see them! If you are the same way, please check out my creations! You can also see a preview of these documents below. I was able to utilize Roxie’s CreationsTrina Clark, and  DigiWebStudio to make it all look absolutely wonderful as well!

cover page of activity pack
student worksheets

My students LOVED the activity – let’s be honest, anything that involves food is a hit!

Earth Cookie photo IMG_4145.jpg

Chocolate Chip Coal Mining photo IMG_4135.jpg

They also learned a lot though.  Not only were they able to see the effects of mining on the environment as a problem, but they could also identify its consequences and brainstorm ways to reduce that impact.

Not too bad for a 5th grader!
Not too bad for a 5th grader!
What are three ways we can minimize the impact of coal mining and use on the environment? photo IMG_4155.jpg
What are three ways we can minimize the impact of coal mining and use on the environment?
Curriculum & Planning, Education, Life Lessons, Middle School, Science

National Conference on Science Education

As a first year science teacher, I am always looking for advice and ideas to use in the classroom.  I have long been a believer in professional organizations – like the National Council for the Social Studies, National Council of Teachers of English, and most recently, the National Science Teacher’s Association.  As a member, I receive a monthly journal with lots of amazing lesson ideas, science content, and resource reviews, and I can access additional material on the web – including old journal issues, email lists, and mini science content courses.

Browsing the site earlier this year, I came across an opportunity for new teachers to apply for an award to help defray the cost of attending the National Conference on Science Education, to be held this year in Boston.  To be honest, I was not expecting the award.  On the application, it directly states that preference will be given to teachers who had been members of the NSTA Student Chapter of their college or university, and to make matters worse, I realized I forgot to send the main information form with my entire application packet and had to send it in a separate envelope.  I figured it was a long shot, but why not try.

I was incredibly surprised and honored, then, to receive an email from NSTA, announcing that I had been one of 25 teachers selected for this award. WOW! I can’t begin to share with you my excitement — it only grew after I began browsing the sessions to be held at the conference as well.

Being selected for this award has not only filled me with excitement to travel to Boston and to attend these amazing conference sessions and (yay!) FIELD TRIPS, but it has given renewed life to my drive to continually improve — to gain new experiences, to make connections, and to become a leader in my field.

I have definitely had my ups and downs with education — when I left Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools last year, I thought I would give up on it entirely.  I felt like a failure of a teacher, and I wasn’t sure what to do with the career I had spent the last seven years working toward. Teaching at OLCS this year has entirely turned that around, though.  I work with an amazing team of teachers, with awesome students, and with administrators that are there for me.  I have the freedom and support to meet curriculum standards creatively and to incorporate the authentic learning experiences so important at the middle level.  My students have video-conferenced with professors from Penn State Behrend, collected water quality data from Cascade Creek, and conducted an energy audit of our school.  They are engaged in independent research projects, investigating original questions and sharing their results through journal-like reports.    Some of my students will even share their research at Allegheny College’s Creek Connections Symposium in April.  I am lucky to work at a school like OLCS, and the culture that our teachers, students, and administrators have created has been a huge factor in my success.

I look forward to what’s to come, and I can’t wait to share it all with you!

 

Curriculum & Planning, Education, Lesson Plans, Middle School, Science

Layers of the Earth & Plate Tectonics

My students have just started an Earth Science unit, looking at the questions: What factors shaped our land? and How has Earth changed over time?

I got lucky that as I was planning this unit, I received the NSTA’s Science Scope December issue, which had a great article about using Oreo cookies to teach plate tectonics.  I have attached the three day lesson I created that centers around that activity.  In addition to the actual Oreos, I also utilized the Sciencesaurus book (green version) and another text, Science Explorer: Inside Earth.

Layers of the Earth

Plate Tectonic Puzzle

Oreo Tectonic Collage