Mr. Walker and Ms. Rivera’s study of biodiversity had become a keystone for teaching science in their school. It posed questions of civic and global importance. It integrated diverse modes of inquiry. It called on mathematical, historical, literary, and artistic skills and tools. It provided students not only with a deep and personal relationship with their subject but also with an understanding that learning science is based on continuous and creative investigation: questioning, mapping, reflection, systematic observation, data analysis, presentation, discussion, modeling, theorizing, and explaining. The most exciting part was that their continued investigations inevitably led to more questions. The study of biodiversity offered endless opportunities for learning.
The “Biodiversity in a City Schoolyard” case provides an example of how the four strands of science learning can be intertwined in instruction and how skills and knowledge are built over time.
The young students in Mr. Walker’s and Ms. Rivera’s classes were not starting their study of biodiversity completely from scratch. They all came with some foundation of prior understanding, the result of personal interests and previous experience or interaction with nature. They also had a well-developed sense of the causal regularities, mechanisms, and principles of the biological world, and Mr. Walker and Ms. Rivera were able to activate and build on that knowledge.
Research shows that very young children—even infants—are able to distinguish animals (birds) from artifacts (stuffed animals), even when they have strikingly similar appearances. This may be related to their ability to distinguish intentional agents from inanimate objects, in that animals are distinctive because they are social creatures with desires, goals, and other cognitive and emotional states that help explain their actions.
Young children tend not to know much about the mechanisms that underlie biological processes, such as digestion, movement, and reproduction. However, they have a remarkable ability to track various patterns in the biological world. For example, they understand that food is transformed in a manner that gives organisms the ability to grow and move and that an organism will physically