As the weather gets warmer and the school year winds down, are you and your students itching to get outside? It’s the perfect time to share life science lessons that focus on current news topics like food sustainability and invasive species.
Keep reading for four easy and practical ways you can dig into these topics and grow student understanding — both in the classroom and outdoors!
Soil health and erosion
How does soil help plants grow? It’s not just dirt, it’s full of micro-organisms and other life. Before you plant any seeds, explore soil with your students to help them understand how soil health contributes to plant health.
First, take a look underground by showing students what a cross-section of the ground looks like with a soil horizons display or diagram. From fertile topsoil down to the bedrock, each region has different types of soil and soil horizons to consider when deciding which plants to grow to make sure you’re not damaging the environment.
After students have a baseline understanding, you can discuss how soil impacts native plants and agriculture.
- Why is it important to understand the type of soil you’re working with before planting a food or decorative garden?
- What could go wrong if you don’t research your soil before planting?
- What types of organisms live in our soil? What do they do that contributes to soil health?
- Why is soil erosion a concern?
- Why do we aerate soil? Why is it important to promote root growth?
Next, let students see what goes on underneath the ground as a plant grows! A planter with a clear viewing window like the Root-Vue Farm enables students to watch the root system grow over time and gives them a new appreciation for the plants they see growing outdoors.
As an extension of this activity, you may want to take your class outside and do some digging. Ask students to collect soil samples from different areas around the school. When you bring them back inside, you can look for similarities and differences, as well as discuss what types of plants grow well in your region.
Food sustainability and aquaponics
An outdoor garden isn’t always an option. Many environments aren’t conducive to growing enough crops to feed the local population, and in urban areas there often isn’t enough green space, resulting in food deserts. Ask your students the following questions.
- What is a food desert? What factors contribute to creating a food desert?
- Have you heard of any solutions to these problems? (They may mention community gardens, rooftop gardens, hydroponics, or aquaponics.)
- What are the pros and cons of these solutions?
- What is food sustainability? Why is it important?
To further explore food sustainability solutions, create your own indoor aquaponic or hydroponic garden. This is a great way to bring the outdoors into your classroom if you don’t have any opportunities to get a real-world look at a natural environment together. There are many all-in-one kits available that make setup easy, such as the AquaSprouts® Complete Garden Kit, which turns any 10-gallon aquarium into a self-sustaining ecosystem.
No matter where you live, biodiversity protects your environment. Without biodiversity, an invasive species or disease can wreak havoc on a habitat by destroying native plant or animal populations.
Explore the benefits of biodiversity in your classroom by planting a variety of seeds. As you watch your seedlings sprout and grow, discuss these questions in class:
- What type of environment is ideal for this plant (sun, shade, type of soil, etc.)?
- What region is this plant native to? Is it native to where we live?
- What habitat does this plant grow in the wild (forest, grassland, etc.)?
- Is it okay for us to transfer this plant to a garden outdoors?
- When we transfer our plants outdoors, where should we plant them? Are there any that should be kept separate?
Any flowers, grasses, or vegetables will work for this activity. If you’re looking for an easy way to get started, check out the Nasco Grow a Decorative Garden Student Kit or Nasco Grow a Fruit and Vegetable Garden Student Kit. Each contains all the supplies students need to start four different types of plants from seeds, including planting instructions and an activity guide.
Once seedlings are large enough and the weather is appropriate, find an outdoor garden space or larger planters where you can transfer plants as a class. If that isn’t possible, you can send seedlings home with students to plant with their families.
Dive more deeply into discussing invasive species by bringing caterpillars into your classroom. Caterpillars eat a lot! Students can watch how quickly a caterpillar can munch their way through a leaf and imagine the impact that may have in the wild.
Discussion points can cover the food chain and predator-prey relationships in addition to invasive species.
- The caterpillars are protected in our classroom. In the wild, what are their natural predators?
- If they didn’t have any natural predators, what would happen to the plants they eat?
- What do you think would happen if this caterpillar was transplanted into a different ecosystem with predators?
As your caterpillar grows, you can also talk about the lifecycle of a butterfly. Students can watch the caterpillars as they eat to store up energy, pupate, and then emerge as adult butterflies. A system like the Butterfly Hydroponics Kit includes caterpillars and plants, as well as an educator guide and worksheets.
Once your butterflies are grown, you can release them outside together. What will the butterflies do now? They will help to pollinate the plants they eat and continue the cycle!
From seed to sprout and from caterpillar to butterfly, there are countless hands-on opportunities to engage students in life science lessons this spring and all year long. If you use any of these ideas to bring the outdoors into your classroom or take your class outside, we’d love to hear about it!