Updating traditional investigations

As a middle school life science teacher, I wanted students to learn about the living things in the habitats of our own community. One of the investigations we did each year was to “inventory” the bit of lawn in front of the school. The students dug out a small sample, and back in the lab they “dissected” it to count the number of species of plants that grew there and animals that lived in the soil (the school did not use herbicides on the grass). The teams compared their samples with those from different parts of the yard—near the pavement, under a tree, near the rainspouts. I had similar-sized samples from a lawn that used herbicides (not mine) as an additional comparison.

We also looked at water samples from a nearby reservoir, a pond, and a stream that ran through the town park. We tried to identify the microorganisms and macroinvertebrates and compared the populations of each sample. It was a relevant way to help students learn to use microscopes and stereoscopes and to sharpen their observation skills.

Fast forward to 2013… I just read about citizen-science projects offered by CIESE (Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education) at the Stevens Institute of Technology that take these inventories and kick them up a notch. The projects have websites where students can share and compare their findings not just with their classmates but with teams of students from other locations.

These two projects are suggested for grades 1-5, but they are certainly appropriate for middle grades:

  • In the Square of Life, students plot square meters in their schoolyards and record the living and non-living things that are found therein. They submit this information to the project database and can then compare and contrast their information with that submitted by other classes. They can prepare a brief report or presentation that will be posted to the project web site.
  • Bucket Buddies is a pond water study project in which students attempt to determine whether or not the same fresh water macroinvertebrates will be found in different locations, both around the country and around the world. Participating classes will collect samples from ponds near their schools, identify the macroinvertebrates in the samples and then share their identifications with other project participants via the project website.

The website for each project includes student activities, a teacher’s guide, and reference materials. I enjoyed looking at the “Student Gallery” in which classes posted photographs and shared their reports. Registration is now open for the fall 2013 runs of Bucket Buddies and Square of Life, and the projects are also available in the spring.

CIESE has many other interdisciplinary projects for K-12 that encourage collaboration and the collection and analysis of real-time (and real-life) data.


Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benwerd/329570851/

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