Mr. Walker and Ms. Rivera found it helpful to refocus their attention on more important features like mouth parts, by presenting “tools” analogous to mouth parts (picks, straws, tongs, etc.) along with different kinds of food and asking the children to investigate which types of food can be most easily picked up with which types of “tools.” This led to an interesting investigation of the “tools” that different insects had.
A number of students in the fifth grade began to explore the history of different plantings in the yard, interviewing older residents who lived nearby and visiting the local history museum. After extensive investigation, they determined that the largest and tallest of the trees in the front yard was probably older than the school building itself.
By the end of the school year, the two groups had assembled an electronic field guide, with detailed drawings, annotated commentary in both English and Spanish, and a map of flora and fauna organized both by quadrants and by a much finer-grained grid of square meters.
In all, the children had identified 9 species of trees, 12 types of woody shrubs, and 14 species of planted flowers. The field guide contained 47 detailed drawings, with separate chapters on trees, shrubs, flowering plants, weeds, animals, and insects. The two classes presented a print version of their completed field guide to the school, to be placed on reserve in the library. They presented their work via PowerPoint presentation at an all-school assembly.
While Mr. Walker and Ms. Rivera were pleased with the results of the biodiversity project, they knew it was just the beginning. A friend of Mr. Walker who worked in landscaping examined the field guide and pointed out several errors in classification. Moreover, despite the polished presentation for the school and all the information they had gathered, the students had ended up with many unanswered questions. They were still unsure what accounted for the variation in the heights of the trees. They had ruled out differences in soil quality, but not whether the cause had to do with age or sunlight conditions or the species itself.
The following September, Ms. Rivera and Mr. Walker decided to continue their curriculum, which they were now calling “Biodiversity in a City Schoolyard.” The students from the previous year wanted to continue their work. In response, the third- and sixth-grade teachers asked to join the project with Mr. Walker and Ms. Rivera.
The second year of the project began with presentations from the students who had developed the field guide the year before. The launching point was the unfinished work and unanswered questions generated by the previous year’s second and fifth graders. The introductory session for all of the students included these “hanging questions,” as well as a number of new ones. One student wanted to know how many trees over 60 feet tall there were in the neighborhood. Another wanted to map big trees throughout the entire city using global positioning system technology.
The two teachers were simultaneously excited about their past success and nervous about their lack of subject matter expertise. This provided a learning opportunity for everyone. Mr. Walker decided to ask for help from members of the biology department at the local college. He was amazed at the response. Several faculty and advanced undergraduates were interested in visiting the school to discuss the project. When the guest speakers came, the teachers had as many questions as the students, asking about methods for pursuing the students’ questions, as well as soliciting factual information.
Despite their concerns about being able to oversee all of these activities adequately, Mr. Walker and Ms. Rivera still felt they were doing many things right. And their concern with the success of the project led them to reach out and find resources they might never have otherwise.