What are the creatures in our backyard and how can we care for them? The core purpose of this project was for students to develop a connection to the natural world, begin to learn about the complicated balance of ecosystems, and develop an interest in becoming stewards of the environment.
Through a series of field experiences and expert visitors, students explored a variety of ecosystems — ocean, fresh water, inland and coastal lands — to understand the life cycles within each one, and the relationships among plant and animal species. Students examined the role of pollinators and re-planted a school garden.
One class partnered with Trout in the Classroom to hatch and raise trout, and then went in search of a clean and healthy water ecosystem in which to release them. After eight weeks, the students became quite attached to the fish, and the pressing need to find a river or lake where they could survive added a real-world urgency to the students’ semester-long research into ecosystems.
This project was featured in the 2021 book Changing the Subject: Twenty Years of Projects from High Tech High. You can learn more about the book and the projects within by visiting the official website.
Students decided that they wanted to create “A Kid’s Guide to Your Backyard Ecosystem” explaining all they had learned about animal adaptations, species interrelationships in ecosystems, and human impact. This book became one of the final products of the project. Each student wrote a chapter about a part of the ecosystem that interested them. The class worked together to organize the chapters into a flow that made sense, drafted their chapters, designed their layouts, and helped each other revise and edit to make a final product.
One of the students had a hobby of creating “Bino Cards” since kindergarten — similar to Pokemon cards, but with dinosaur-like creatures. The class built on this idea to create an ecosystem game with Pokemon-like cards for each animal in the ecosystem, complete with powers, predators, prey, food needs, etc. The goal of the game is to build an ecosystem that can support an apex predator.
The adoption/adaptation of the “Bino” game created accessibility and a leadership opportunity for a group of students who had previously been less than fully engaged. In addition to critique and revision, teachers scaffolded the skills required for book production with many micro-models. For example, what does a good table of contents look like? What does a good caption look like? What does a good explanatory diagram look like?
Teachers integrated Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for the reading and writing parts of this project, so they were assessing students during reading and writing workshop times. Student-created scientific models were an important way that teachers assessed students’ understanding of science content. Students created these models about ecological relationships throughout the project.
One of the project’s goals was to awaken a sense of environmental stewardship in students. Although there was no direct individualized assessment of that transformation, students designed their next semester project to include planting a pollinator garden in Otay Lakes, a preserve they had visited multiple times.
At the exhibition, students taught their families and other students how to play their ecosystem game. They presented their Kids’ Guide to Backyard Ecosystems books, and showed their process of learning. Since field experiences were such an important part of the project, students also took their parents on a hike, along the way showing them various species and what they had learned about their life cycles.