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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Teach High School Science

Start a Collection!
by Judy Jones

Nature collections can be a wonderful way to engage and interest students in science. They are effective with children of all ages. I first started collecting when I was very small and got fascinated by the many colors, shapes and shininess of rocks in the hills behind our house. I started picking out unique ones and storing them in a box. I also loved finding leaves and flowers of many shapes and colors and I learned to preserve them in the pages of old magazines. I even found the stray bones and partial skeletons of animals – these were particular treasures! Much later, my oldest son became a dedicated insect collector and I still use some of his displays in my classroom. My other two children were collectors of baseball and basketball cards and other treasures so the “collector gene” is strong in our family!

In my classroom, I have tried to control my collecting urge (in the interest of space!). I have a collection of fossils, rocks, skulls (and other bones), shells, arthropods (insects plus, and other unique natural items such as the egg strands of whelks, the moltings of spiders, and the cork layer from a cork tree (useful when students use the microscope to look at cork cells just a Robert Hooke did). I also have a nice array of living snakes – corn snakes, king snakes, milk snakes, rat snakes, and even a couple of pythons (14 in all). Two tarantulas fill out the living spectrum.

At first, I just brought my collections to my classroom when I started teaching because I thought that they would make the environment more interesting, and then I discovered the power of these collections. Even young people that I don’t teach sort of treat my room like a museum and come in at lunch to look at the items and ask questions. Collections can be useful just as interest grabbers to make your classroom more appealing, but over the years I have found that their greatest power comes when I use them for more formal learning experiences.

How do I use collections in the classroom?
Students can make observations and measurements of the skulls and then form hypotheses about whether the animals are herbivores, omnivores, or carnivores – providing the observational evidence for their hypotheses. This can lead to further research about structural adaptations, position of an organism in a food web, and the evolution of various structures.

I use my collections of shells when students are learning about and creating and applying dichotomous keys. In addition, if you have enough of one type of shell, students can make measurements and record observations to note the variation within a species and then go on to look at the value of this variation in the evolutionary process.

Among my snakes, I have a wild-type corn snake (orange, white, and black), an amelanistic corn snake (only orange and white), an anerythristic corn snake (black and white) and an all white corn snake. When I teach about mutations and the enzymatic pathways that lead to color pigments, these snakes are really valuable. My students can see the direct result of a mutation right in front of them. (The amelanistic corn has a mutation in a gene that codes for an enzyme involved in the melanin production pathway; the anerythristic corn has a mutation in the gene coding for an enzyme in the orange pigment pathway; the white snake has both mutations.)

The pythons both have claws on each side of their vents (where waste is ejected and mating occurs). Internally, they have a pelvic girdle – evidence of the evolution of snakes from earlier lizard-like creatures. I use this as an example and then have the students write evolutionary natural histories about other organisms.

My fossil collection is used in a lab activity where students view the fossils and then try to hypothesize the method of formation and the ecological setting of the organism. They also try to think of modern day organisms for which the fossilized one is the ancestor. Form there, they can write an evolutionary history.

My insect collections are used to teach about insect characteristics, diversity, and the amazing adaptations to behaviors such as movement and eating.

The tarantula moltings are very engaging! I keep one on my desk at school – spiders molt everything including the fangs – so students can get up-close and personal with these fangs. Usually students ask me if the molting is “real.” (answer yes!) Then they ask me if it is a dead spider (answer no); then they want to know that it is. I challenge them to find out – which they do! Their curiosity leads to other research on the function of molting and the details of the process.

When I was teaching chemistry, I used the rock collection to have students try to predict some of the metals or elements present based on the characteristics of the rocks. Then they researched the type of rock and presented their findings to the class.


How can you begin a collection?
I have built my collections from many sources. Some specimens I have gathered myself, some I have bought at nature stores and some have been given as gifts. But, I think one way to really engage students is to have them make their own collections or have them contribute to classroom collections. Rocks, seed pods, insects, and leaves all make interesting collections. One of the excellent content connections comes in identifying what they have found. This leads to research that hones their powers of observation, and reading as well as their decoding abilities and content knowledge – all in a way that is interesting to them. Many times you can use the collections in class, which makes the students feel very valuable to the learning process. My students have even brought unique items (deer antlers, snake eggs, turtle shells, etc.) to add to my collections.


What other issues should be considered?
When you have students make collections or contribute to a class collection, please remind them of conservation issues. Collecting insects, small rocks or plant materials is not very damaging to the environment. But students should not be collecting vertebrates or any endangered species. This is an excellent way to teach them about the environment and our responsibility to preserve nature. When my students bring these items, we always enjoy looking at them and learning about them, but we return them to the location of the capture when we are done. This allows me to value what the student has contributed and still teach about the need to preserve species.

What ideas do you have?
I would love to hear from others about how they use collection in their classrooms. And if you have never made a collection, why don’t you start today!? You will have fun and your students will benefit.

As always if you have questions or contributions, please feel free to contact me.


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