You can learn a lot from a little space…

dr-mackleOne honoree on our Teacher Wall of Fame, Dr. Katrina Macht, created and shared this great “Adopt a Spot” project-based learning activity for upper elementary and middle schoolers. Students pick 1 square meter of outdoor space that they can access regularly, and over the course of several days, conduct a census of the living and non-living things in that space, and record observations about each. Is there evidence of bugs eating plants? How many invertebrates can you find and of what type? Does the area have its own water source or does it rely on rain? How does this spots’ residents use the spots’ non-living resources to survive? Students then analyze and interpret their data on their mini-ecosystem, construct explanations, and explore cross-cutting concepts, such as cause and effect and patterns. Dr. Macht’s students love the lesson, and many have built an emotional connection to their adopted spot, revisiting it long after the lesson is over to see what the residents are up to. Thanks for sharing!

Dr. Macht’s Teacher notes are below, and she’s created two student worksheets.  Enjoy!
Task 1 Worksheet.
Task 2 Worksheet.


Taking Science Outdoors During Distance Learning
Teacher Notes – Connecting to NGSS

Just because we’re conducting classes from home during this pandemic doesn’t mean we can’t take learning outdoors. The purpose of these interconnected lessons is for students to use their own backyards, front yards, curb lawns, or neighborhoods to explore interdependent relationships between organisms, their environments, and each other, as well as probe energy flow within local ecosystems. Students will examine their local area(s) to identify the abiotic factors found on the site (Task 1), before collecting data on the number of plants and animals (abundance) and the number of different species (richness) found in the area (Task 2). Once the data have been collected and compiled, students will then analyze the information in order to construct explanations about how organisms interact with the living and nonliving parts of the environment to obtain matter and energy.

Topical Concepts
Ecosystems, interdependent relationships, resource availability, environmental interactions

Related Concepts
Patterns of interactions (predator-prey, competition, mutually beneficial), symbiosis (parasitism, mutualism, commensalism)

Suggestions for Instruction
Task 1

  • Before the students outside to complete Task 1 have them develop a list of questions they have about the abiotic factors and resource availability of their site.
  • At the site, students will set up 1-meter square quadrants to observe, and then collect and record data.
  • This investigation may take more than one session to complete, depending on the amount of detail that is desired. By the end of the investigation the collected data should provide an ample overview of the features and resource availability of the designated area.
  • Via an online learning platform (i.e. Google Meet, Zoom, Google Classroom, etc.), students will come together to share and discuss the data collected. Guiding questions may include:
    • What do you think the data means?
    • How can you analyze the data?
    • Do you see any possible data correlations?

Task 2

  • Students will brainstorm a list of plant and animal species that may be found in their “adopted areas.” This list will serve as a basis for identifying organisms in the outdoor investigation.
  • At their adopted study site, students will list all the different types of plants and animals they see in the area. (The site should be the same designated area as in Task 1. This survey may be conducted over 1 day, or a series of days. If it is conducted over several days, use a separate data collection sheet each day.)
  • Students should take photos to identify individual species. They can also record any evidence of wildlife in their site, such as scat, feathers, homes/nests, partially eaten plant material.
  • Class discussion. Guiding questions may include:
    • What do you think the data means?
    • How do you think the data collected in Task 1 impacts the data collected in this investigation?
    • Do you see any possible patterns or relationships in the data?
  • Students will then construct an explanation to answer the question: How do organisms interact with the living and nonliving parts of their environments to obtain matter and energy? The explanation should be in the format of: claim, evidence, and reasoning.

Connection to NGSS

  • Performance Expectation, MS-LS2-1:
  • Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem.
  • Performance Expectation, MS-LS2-2:
  • Construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems.
  • Disciplinary Core Idea, MS-LS2.A:
  • Organisms and populations of organisms are dependent on their environmental interactions, both with other living things and nonliving factors.
  • In any ecosystem, organisms and populations with similar requirements for food, water, oxygen, or other resources may compete with each other for limited resources, access to which consequently constrains their growth and reproduction.
  • Growth of organisms and population increases are limited by access to resources.
  • Similarly, predatory interactions may reduce the number of organisms or eliminate whole populations of organisms. Mutually beneficial interactions, in contrast, may become so interdependent that each organism requires the other for survival. Although the species involved in these competitive, predatory, and mutually beneficial interactions vary across ecosystems, the patterns of interactions of organisms with their environments, both living and nonliving, are shared.

Science and Engineering Practices

  • Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena: Analyzing data in 6–8 builds on K–5 experiences and progresses to extending quantitative analysis to investigations, distinguishing between correlation and causation, and basic statistical techniques of data and error analysis.
  • Construct Explanations and Design Solutions: Students are expected to apply scientific reasoning to show why the data or evidence is adequate for the explanation or conclusion.

Cross Cutting Concepts

  • Cause and Effect: Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural and designed systems
  • Patterns: Patterns can be used to identify cause and effect relationships.
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Out Teach, formerly REAL School Gardens, provides professional development for elementary school teachers. Out Teach prepares them to use school gardens, outdoor classrooms, and green schoolyards to improve instruction through three-dimensional project-based learning, and outdoor experiential inquiry-based education. Professional learning with Out Teach improves hands-on science and STEM education through instructional coaching and digital education resources and improves 21st Century skills.