Archive for April, 2010


This past week I did an exploration lab with my biology students. Over the course of the year, I had observed that their observation skills were sorely lacking so I wanted to give them practice observing things.

The lab was simple enough. Since we were concluding a unit on plants, I set up six stations with various parts of plants for the students to examine, take notes on, and eventually develop a simple report. I had one primary objective and two secondary objectives. The primary objective was for students to learn how to make a detailed observation about something. The secondary objectives were for the students to look at different kinds of plant parts as a follow up to learning about the monocots and dicots. For the non-science geeks, a monocot is science speak for a plant that germinates with a single seed leaf, like corn or grass. A dicot is a plant that germinates with two seed leaves, like a bean, almost all flowers, and most trees.

I created 6 stations that related to either monocots or dicots and one station that compared the seeds of monocots to the seeds of dicots. The students went to each station made two observations, one connection and one drawing at each station. Because this was the first time I had them do this kind of thing, I did not make them describe, draw and make sense of the function of each sample. The lab lasted three days.

Day one, I gave them the general overview of the expectations and let them go to town.

Day two, I reviewed the nature of the observations that they made and helped them self critique. I got observations, about flowers for example, like it is multicolored. I pushed them to be more descriptive. What colors? Where are the colors? How are the colors arranged? And similar questions. I asked them to explore the texture, the shapes, the surface features and so on and I sent them back around the stations. Some kids sat down when they reached the station where they had begun, saying they were done. I prodded to get them back and look again. Some did.  I sent all the students home with the assignment to begin to put their data into a neat, organized, presentable form.

Day three, I did a quick review of some of their observations, which had improved. Then I talked about what I meant by “make a connection”. For example, what do you think the purpose of some structure on the plant might be. Another example is that this structure reminds me of____________. One girl observed that a juniper twig reminded her of a Christmas tree when she crushed it. I asked her to consider what that could say about junipers and Christmas trees. Finally, I gave them a format for what needed to be included in every final report of their observational data, went through a non-plant example of a simple observation might look like and told them to write up their final observations. I left the stations up so they could return to them if they wanted to refine their observations. Many did.

Tomorrow, I’ll have the chance to begin reviewing the work. But, based on my observations of the kids at work, I think it was a good beginning. I wish I had more time between now and the end of the school year because I would like to do this kind of thing again. I think it helped the students learn to look at things critically and to take more charge of their learning. I think the kids enjoyed the activity and I think, because I had not told them what to look for, it gave them the opportunity to be look at what they found interesting.

I’ll let you all know.

Earth Day 2010

Earth Day 2010 is scheduled for April 22. My city celebrated it yesterday, April 17, with a small festival. I helped out with the local chapter of Master Naturalists. We had tables full of goodies, from fish specimens to bones, for kids to explore. This year, I got to be the bone lady. We had skulls of a variety of things including a wee turtle, leg bones from birds and mammals, vertebra, and the like. My favorite was the skull of the javelina, (Don’t Call Me Pig) and the feral hog. My role was to help the kids handle these fragile items carefully so they would not get broken. Most of these kids have never seen a skull before so there is a lot of wonder in their eyes to hold and feel one. They would ask what things were and I would ask questions back.

  • What does it eat?
  • What does it remind you of?
  • Have you ever seen anything in your yard with a long skinny head and sharp teeth? (Possum)
  • How does this skull compare to that? Do you think they are the same kind of animal? Why? Why not?
  • Feel this bone. (A thigh bone from a large wading bird, about 12 inches long.)
  • Now feel this one. (Thigh bone from a small land animal, about 6 inches long.)
  • Which one is heavier? (The mammal)
  • What kind of thing would need to have a bone that light?

And so on throughout the day. It was fun to see the kids who made connections from one thing that they knew to the new thing they were seeing. Those are the ones that you know will hold on to something. They have made a connection.

Earth Day. Connections. That, I think is one of the purposes of the day. Once a year we make a point to celebrate our connection to the earth. With some of the kids I saw, there were beginnings of connections. But these connections are not a one day affair. We can begin with a day, but we need to shoot for a lifetime.

What are your plans for Earth Day?

Nature education, where you live

The other day I was teaching a lesson on one of the Biological Kingdoms. As part of the lessons I conducted a lab lesson about microscopic organisms that live nearby. I brought water from a freshwater pond and from the Laguna Madre. The Laguna Madre is one of only five hypersaline lagoons in the world. It is a unique ecosystem and none of my students live more than 10 or 12 miles from it.

As I was describing  where I got the water samples I regularly had students blurt: “where is the Laguna Madre?” I would try to tell them and even then many of them didn’t know where it was. The most effective description was to use, as landmark, a local seafood restaurant.

It is tempting to lament the situation but the alternative is to address it. How? Attend to your area. It is easy for us adults to take our knowledge for granted. We drive to the local seafood restaurant without engaging the kids. We are listening to our music. They are tuned into their iPods, DVDs, or texting. We don’t talk to them about what is going on outside. To us it is common place. They are preoccupied with their affairs. The advantage of living in a pre-digital world is that we had nothing to do but look out windows. We asked questions. Now kids don’t. At least not always.

So, attend to your area.

  • Parents–point out what is going on outside the car. This is especially effective for the young ones because they are still looking and wondering.
  • Be Aware, Be excited. Over the simple things. The pelicans flying barely 6 inches above the water in a wingtip to wingtip formation that would put the Blue Angels to shame. (Or whatever is relevant to your area) There is more going on than we would expect if we would only just look.
  • Play “out the window” games. “I spy” or finding things that match the letters of the alphabet.
  • Teachers, make your lessons relevant to the area. Incorporate elements from the local area in your lesson design. One pre-school teacher I know used a map and local landmarks like the bay, the Laguna, and other things to teach cardinal directions.
  • Go for walks with your kids. My friends’ two year old can’t get enough outside. He is lucky, neither can his parents. I have great hopes for him.

I think it is sad that my students didn’t know where the Laguna Madre was. The cool thing was that most of them loved seeing the stuff in the microscope. They were excited to see that tiny little world. Even when they were grossed out.

It is a beginning.

What’s in your neighborhood that your kids don’t know about? What do you do to engage them?

water, shelter, and food

These are the three elements to attracting wildlife. Most people begin with the food by putting up a feeder or two and food is a big attractant. Often the next step is adding a water feature. Water features can range from the complex and expensive to the simple and inexpensive.

I remember my uncle and I used to sit in his back yard. He had put in an elevated waterfall fountain where the water tumbled down like water in a mountain spring to a small sunken pond. On warm summer days when I went to visit, we would sit on the patio and visit. There was never a day when birds and squirrels would not come and drink and play. Birds and animals like moving water. Fountains like this are often over a thousand dollars to put in but they are very attractive. If you have that kind of time and money, they can be very restful.

At the other end of the spectrum is the simple and inexpensive. By inexpensive I mean up to about 25o dollars give or take. Within that range there are a variety of prefabricated bird baths. You can find all kinds of designs and imprints on these. This spring my local mega grocer was selling ceramic baths for about 45 dollars and they had small reservoir fountains for 100 to 200 dollars. My favorite local nursery was selling plain cast concrete, without any embellishments, for 45 to 65 dollars. Simple bird baths like this will weather and soften over time or they can be painted with a non-toxic paint to liven any garden. At 45 dollars each, it is not out of range for most people and you can easily arrange several bird baths at different heights to create a little oasis.

If you need to go simpler and less expensive than that, an 18 inch diameter terra-cotta pot tray on an up turned pot or cinderblock cashes out at about 20 dollars. It meets all of the requirements of a good bird bath. It is not too deep and not too shallow. The terra-cotta is not too slippery to walk on, unlike some of the fancier ceramics and glass. It is easy to dump the water out for cleaning because it isn’t too heavy. The rim of the tray is just the right thickness for perching birds to stand on for drinking. If it gets broken, it is crushable as pot filler for drainage and cheap to replace. To hide the simpleness of it, set several at different heights and plant around them to hide the bases.

What to look for in a good bird bath. It should be about 2 to 2 1/2 inches deep at the deepest in the center or it should have shallower tiered shoulders for small birds to stand on. Large birds, like grackles and pigeons, can handle water up to 4 inches deep but that is far too deep for the wee ones. It should have some texture to the material so that birds will not slip on the edges. Fancy glass bird baths  are lovely to look at but imagine having to balance on tiny feet along the sides and edge of one. A narrow rim for perching is good too. The larger birds don’t mind baths too near to the ground, other birds prefer a height of about 2 to 3 feet off the ground. If you have a ornemental bird bath that is deeper than a couple of inches in the center, you can place a brick or two or some river rock in the middle to make it shallower. Birds like moving water and mosquitoes don’t; for a little money you can buy attachments to your hose to drip water into the bath or solar operated vibrators that sit in the bird bath and cause disturbance to the water. This will bring the birds in and discourage mosquitoes from laying eggs. Finally, birds are territorial, placing more than one water feature in different parts of your yard will draw in larger numbers of birds.

Water is a major attractant to birds and wildlife. It doesn’t have to break the bank to have a simple attractive bird bath and frankly, the birds don’t care what it looks like. They just want the water.

What’s in your garden?