Student Engagement

Setting Up an Ecological Exchange

Students can learn a lot about ecosystems by gathering objects from their area and swapping with a distant class.

September 16, 2019
John Dorroh / Edutopia
The author’s Mississippi students received these objects from Illinois in an “eco-box” swap.

I’ve always believed wholeheartedly that the key to teaching science—or almost any subject—is to get students engaged with the content as quickly as possible. Writers learn to write by reading and writing. Chefs learn how to prepare delectable dishes by cooking. And science students learn science by doing.

So to get students engaged on the first full day of school, I put a question up on the board: “Which has a higher banana ‘meat’-to-peel ratio: green bananas or yellow bananas? And why?” There are six lab stations in my classroom, and at each one I left a wooden TV tray with a balance, a green banana, a yellow banana, some paper towels, and a sheet of paper with a blank data table.

After a bit of instruction I turned them loose, allowing them to approach the task however they saw fit. I answered questions but was careful not to tell them exactly what to do.

I observed that several of these ninth-grade students had never touched a balance, even though the state curriculum for basic biological and physical science classes indicates that that should have happened much earlier. Many could not calculate percentages. I also observed “leader behavior” and students who weren’t willing to work with others.

Learning by Doing: An Ecology Lesson

I applied the same idea of learning-by-doing later in the semester when we started a lesson on ecology. I facilitated a discussion of ecosystems, starting with the focus question: If you were invited to collect objects that represent the ecosystem here where we live, what would you include?

Some of the things they came up with:

  • oak, magnolia, and maple leaves
  • river rocks
  • soybeans
  • pine needles
  • clay
  • a preserved dragonfly
  • pictures of animals: fish (catfish, perch, crappie, and bream), a water moccasin, a frog, a toad, a cow, an alligator, a deer

We decided to create “shoebox ecosystems,” or eco-boxes, containing as many of the listed objects as possible. We wanted to send these eco-boxes out into the world and invite other students to send us one of theirs to spur learning about other ecosystems. Through a contact at the National Writing Project, I obtained a list of educators who might be interested.

Precautions: Before we placed these items in boxes for shipping, we washed all solid objects such as rocks with hydrogen peroxide. Water samples were sealed with a triple layer of packing tape, and we attached a note that these were for viewing only, not opening. We put leaves and vegetative matter in Ziploc bags with a note suggesting that all materials remain sealed in the bags. We also included a note to wear rubber gloves and wash hands after handling the contents. Finally, I showed a postal worker the contents before I posted them.

Teachers can also try looking for a school in a different region and then email school administrators or department heads—contact info can often be found on school or district websites—to request names of teachers who might want to participate. A friend of mine in Alaska reached out to some South Texas schools and received a list of interested teachers within 24 hours.

Another approach is to reach out to or join the National Science Teaching Association or a state-level science teacher organization. A friend of mine in Alabama built her list by contacting teachers she had met at state science organization conferences.

My next step was to ask my students to prepare an activity guide for each box that would lead their peers around the country to learn about our unique area.

“Should we include some sort of test?” one of my students asked.

“Would you want the box that you receive to have a test in it?” I replied.

“So you’re talking about, like, a checklist where they can check if they have the same things we sent in the box where they live?”

“Yes!” I exclaimed. “Make it educational, make it fun. And of course, it should be a bit challenging.”

To ensure rigorous learning, I included a portion of our state’s science framework in the box with a short note to the teacher: “Please have your students consider our state’s framework for ecology when they construct their activity guide items. We can look at your state’s guide online and construct our items in a similar manner. Thank you.”

A Treasure Trove—With Lessons

The first box we received came from Nevada. The secretary who brought it said, “Special delivery from Nevada—I had to sign for it.” She was as curious as the students. The box contained a classroom picture of the students and their teacher along with desert rocks, small jars and vials of sand, and pictures of snakes, lizards, and cacti, most of which were in bloom.

“Hey, Mr. D., I didn’t know there was anything colorful in the desert,” said one student.

“I don’t like the looks of these activity guide items,” said another. “Some of them look a bit complicated to me. Like write an argument that shows both sides for running an oil pipeline through the desert.”

“Don’t panic,” I said. “It’s the same sort of arguing that we we’ve used several times before.”

One of the items in the box referred to flash-flooding in desert ecosystems. Students were quick to point out that this had similarities to questions on our state-wide assessment from the previous semester.

We studied the objects in the box, learning how each contributed to the overall health of the desert ecosystem. It was the perfect time to reinforce terms like abiotic/biotic factors, niche, predator, prey, producers, consumers, and more.

My students started showing more interest in their surroundings. They seem to be examining and questioning ideas and behaviors that they had once taken for granted. For example, the students who liked to fish and hunt began asking questions about limits and whether three-wheelers might be bad for the environment. One student’s mother was a forest manager, and we invited her to come in and share her knowledge with the class.

In addition to learning some science, my students began to communicate with one another about science, something that I can’t recall ever having happened. Swapping eco-boxes with classes from other states—after Nevada we swapped with students in Oregon and Maine—helped my students think outside the box and do some authentic learning.

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