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Study of a Woodland/Pond Area

Study of a Woodland/Pond Area by Judith D. Jones
East Chapel Hill High School 

Many school grounds are fortunate to have natural ecological areas available for student research. Our school has two human-built ponds that long ago were abandoned as the forest rebuilt around them. They are ideal for scientific studies. My biology students use the area during the year to study ecosystems, to observe and measure the growth of a tree branch, to research specific organisms, and to keep nature journals (including drawings). The initial activity is called Study of a Woodland/Pond Area. 

Recently I returned from an educator trip to Belize sponsored by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. As part of the experience, the teachers participated in different methods to organize and teach students of all ages. I was particularly interested in the process of organizing students into expert groups for the purpose of making observations. I have adapted that idea into the Woodland Study. 

The students are organized into five expert groups (Physical Features, Plants, Animals, Decomposers, and Human Influence). I had two groups of students per expert area, which resulted in 2-3 students per group. We all went down to the ponds, taking field guides, plastic bags, gloves, trowels, thermometers (including soil), pH testers, light meter, compass, masking tape, pens, clipboards, and handouts. Each group of students dispersed to carry out its observations. Some of the groups collected samples in plastic bags and labeled their bags.

The next day, each of the expert areas gathered together to plan a presentation about what they had observed. For this step, both groups in each expert area worked together. I have created student "white boards" with tile board from the hardware store (4' x 8' sheets) cut into six boards each. My students prepare their presentations by using the white boards for visual support. They are very creative!

On the third day, the students made their presentations. Their enthusiasm was exciting. They had been very personally involved in making new scientific observations of a familiar area and finding many unexpected things. The experience raised many questions which we have referred to during the ensuing year.

This year's highlights included: a black rat snake, a wolf spider with egg case attached, more fungi than the students could imagine, unusual pH patterns in the two ponds (to be investigated further), and a nice array of different plant reproductive structures. We even saw some fish leap in the pond. When special organisms were found, all students were called over to share in the excitement.

This activity would be very adaptable to other ecological settings. It could even be used for a day-long field trip to an area for teachers who do not have a handy natural lab nearby. Although I use this activity for high school freshmen, it could be adapted for any grade level.

The National Science Standards state that teachers should: 
  • select teaching and assessment strategies that support the development of student understanding and nurture a community of science learners
  • challenge students to accept and share responsibility for their own learning
  • select science content and adapt and design curricula to meet the interests, knowledge, understanding, abilities, and experiences of students

In addition, the specific grades 9-12 content standards include:

  • interdependence and organisms
  • behavior of organisms

This activity is an exciting way to start your students on their journey of understanding and appreciating the wonderful diversity of life that surrounds us.

Study of a Woodland/Pond Area - Group A:  Abiotic

Study of a Woodland/Pond Area - Group B:  Biotic Factors (Vegetation)

Study of a Woodland/Pond Area - Group C:  Biotic Factors (Animals)

Study of a Woodland/Pond Area - Group D:  Biotic Factors (Decomposition)

Study of a Woodland/Pond Area - Group E:  Biotic/Abiotic Factors (Evidence of Human Presence)


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