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Use Guided Inquiry to Explore Your Schoolyard on Earth Day

By Beth Van Fleet
Product Manager: Environmental, Ecology, AP® Biology, and AP® Environmental

National Science Education Standards

  • Grades K–4 and 5–8, Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry; Abilities Necessary to Do Scientific Inquiry, Understandings About Scientific Inquiry
  • Grades K–4, Content Standard C: Life Science; Organisms and Environments
  • Grades K–4, Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives; Changes in Environments
  • Grades 5–8, Content Standard C: Life Science; Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms
  • Grades 5–8, Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives; Populations, Resources, and Environments

Celebrate Earth Day 2011 with your students by taking them outside to inquire about the world around them. With a little planning, you can move through the 5E learning cycle, cover a couple of national standards, and (hopefully) soak up sunshine while you’re at it. The learning cycle is a recognized tool for teaching science through teacher-guided activities and student-directed investigations. Its namesake 5 stages—engage, explore, explain, extend, and evaluate—are easy to move through as you conduct this fun guided inquiry of schoolyard organisms.

Engage

Give your students a little information about Earth Day to tie the event into this activity. Earth Day was established 40 years ago to emphasize environmental issues that affect our planet. It’s now part of a year-round effort to gather information about and study everything from clean air to saving the whales. Scientists and others evaluate that information and form conclusions about the best way to take care of our environment. Engage your students by asking what they know about the flora and fauna populating their schoolyard, and why the organisms live where they do. Record their answers for reference after completing the 5E cycle.

Spend a few minutes explaining how to make scientifically valuable observations, e.g., writing a description that is understandable when reviewed a week later. Remember, drawing pictures—especially for younger students—is a great way to make observations. Tell students to consider the color and shape of specimens and the schoolyard location where the observation occurs. Explain how scientifically valuable observations are the foundation for scientifically valuable questions and conclusions.

Create a simple field notebook by folding a few pieces of paper in half horizontally and stapling them in the middle. Distribute the notebooks to students for recording their observations. Make sure each student has a pencil, crayons, or colored pencil, and if available, a magnifying glass.

Explore

In the schoolyard, designate a safe area and ensure that students understand its boundaries before they start exploring. Allow them 20 min to make at least 5 appropriate observations.

Back in the classroom, create a 2-column table on the board. Have students share their best observations with the class, then record the observations in the table’s left column. This is an opportunity to evaluate the students’ ability to collect scientifically valuable observations.

After entering all the observations into the table, have students create a question for each observation. Record the questions in the table’s right column, as show in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Observation Table

  Observations Questions
1 Pink wriggly worms on the blacktop. What caused the earthworms to come out of the ground?
2 The beetles under the rock have hard shiny shells. Why do insects under rocks have hard shells?
3 Gray squirrels travel from tree to tree. Why do squirrels live in trees?
4 Butterflies have big beautiful wings. Why do butterflies have wings?
5 Butterflies fly from flower to flower. What are butterflies doing flying from flower to flower?

Teacher-guided inquiry

Choose a question or group of questions whose resulting investigation will lead students through the concepts of organisms and their environments or the diversity and adaptations of organisms. The choice depends on which content standard you are interested in meeting. Also, choose whether students work in groups or as a whole class for the project. Have students address the questions using the scientific method then form answers using an educated guess— hypothesis—based on their observations. For example, looking at questions 2 and 4 in the table above, you may form the following question and hypothesis.

Question: Why do insects have different bodies?

Hypothesis: Insects have different bodies based on where they live.

Explain

Help students create a simple step-by-step test—procedure—useful for proving their hypothesis. Collect their data and use it to create graphs that communicate their findings. Incorporating the data and observations, have students form a conclusion about whether their answer to the question was correct. Assessing students’ understanding of each element in an experiment is another opportunity to fulfill the evaluate portion of the learning cycle. Below are examples of a procedure, a table for recording collected data, and a graph.

Procedure (example)

  1. Turn over a rock and observe the exposed insects for 5 min.
    1. Count the insects with hard shiny bodies and record the results on the data table.
    2. Count the insects with big wings and record the results on the data table.
  2. Observe a patch of flowers for 5 min and notice the insects that come to the flowers.
    1. Count the insects with hard shiny bodies and record the results on the data table.
    2. Count the insects with big wings and record the results on the data table.

Figure 2 Data Table (example)

  Hard Bodies Big Wings
Under the Rock 5 1
On the Flower 1 4
Figure 3 Graph (example)

Conclusion to example

Insect bodies differ based on where the insects live. Insects with homes under rocks cannot fly under the rocks, so they don’t need big wings. Instead, they need hard bodies to provide protection from rocks crushing them. On the other hand, insects that fly flower to flower need big wings; heavier hard bodies would make flying difficult.

Extend

Before going outside, return to the questions you asked your students and their answers you recorded. Have the class review the questions and answers. Ask students to relate what they learned in their experiment to the answers they made prior to the activity. Evaluate the responses to determine if they now grasp the original concept of how organisms relate to their environment.

With a little planning at the outset, your Earth Day activity can be a powerful inquiry experience that meets national standards, reinforces science concepts, and is enjoyable for everyone. Memories of this kind of experience will remain with your students all of their lives and give them greater understanding of the world around them.

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