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!

The Next Generation Science Standards & Lesson Planning

At the NSTA’s Boston Conference this year, I attended a Professional Development Institute on the Next Generation Science Standards. Since then, I have been looking forward to taking the time to review the standards in greater depth and consider how I can incorporate them into my curriculum.

I am pretty lucky to work at a private school that gives me a good deal of freedom with what and how I teach.  I have a set of standards for each grade level – but to be honest, they are nearly identical.  There are perhaps ten changes between fifth and sixth grade’s seven page documents.  I have been thinking how challenging it is to cover all of that material in one year’s time (and actually, in only three quarters of the year, because I am supposed to teach health as well!), and really, how unfeasible it is to truly explore the content.

As I started to brainstorm some approaches for next year, it occurred to me that because I teach two grades, and these middle level grades are all working towards the same school curriculum documents and NGSS standards, I could divide the curriculum in half.  Fifth grade could explore one half of the seven page list of standards, and sixth grade could cover the other half.  This allows us to take enough time to truly engage with the content and build science practices, instead of just memorizing and “spitting back” a cursory overview of the topic.

Right now, I’m leaning toward starting with the physical sciences in fifth grade (matter and energy), moving into earth science (energy resources/natural resources), and ending with a unit on weather, climate, and global warming/climate change.  Then in sixth grade, they would begin by taking a broad view of life science through the study of ecology, move into biodiversity, and end with a focus on biology (organisms, life cycles, adaptation, anatomy, etc.).  Additionally, I plan to include a “citizen scientist” project and/or a service learning component. With this approach, I would still meet all the standards I am required to over the course of two years, but students would have time to reach deeper depths of complexity and understanding.

Anyway, I will be posting my unit plans on the blog as I complete them, but in the mean time, check out the new lesson planner I created —

NGSS Lesson - Navy Chevron.pdf (Original)

NGSS Lesson Template

While the other lesson plan templates I have made focused on Common Core State Standards and 21st Century Skills, this template is designed for lessons that align with the NGSS.  There are spaces to checkmark which Science and Engineering Practices students are developing and also which Crosscutting Concepts are to be incorporated into the lesson.  It also has room to record the Disciplinary Core Ideas that the lesson will address, as well as the Performance Expectations students are working toward mastering.  On the second page, there are spaces for you to record your lesson’s Warm Up, Instruction, Activity, and Assessment.

I plan to create more designs for this template, utilizing different colors and patterns.  Do you have any designs you would really want to see? I am always up for suggestions!

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?

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