Exploring Interactions In Ecosystems: A Discovery Card Set

Cards! We are back to cards. If you’re a follower of this blog, you’ve heard about them before… because like I said, I love them! A quick review — cards can be used in so many ways to help students discover ideas by providing examples, engaging them in a series of quick tasks, or connecting them to technology.  Cards can also be used to promote discussion, review concepts, or assess understanding.

I have found cards are really valuable when teaching about classification, which at its core is about identifying patterns and creating groups based on those. (Did you catch the Crosscutting Concept, there?)  One of the best ways for students to classify “things” based on patterns is simply to examine a number of examples and use those examples to create their own system of classification. In this constructivist approach, the groups are really coming from the students.  For that reason, they are way more likely to understand the groupings (including knowing what fits and what doesn’t), be able to use the groupings to make predictions, and be able to recall those groupings in the long term.


Discovering Ecosystem Interactions With Card Sorts

Interactions in ecosystems is a concept that works well for this approach.  Now, when I first started teaching, my lesson on interactions looked something like:

  1. Show three to five short videos – one for each type of ecosystem interaction.
  2. Summarize the interaction (who is benefits, who does not) and provide the vocabulary term.
  3. Follow up with a worksheet that asked students to classify different interactions.

While this isn’t COMPLETELY awful, it isn’t quite an NGSS-style lesson and definitely does not fit the 5E Model of “explore before explain”! As my understanding of the NGSS and the 5E Model grew, though, I developed a new strategy.  Cards.

Instead of doing the video and explanation thing off the bat, I instead provide my students with a set of Interactions In Ecosystems cards.  The cards include a description of an interaction, an image, and a link to a bit more information (for those early finishers or just curious students).  The important thing about these cards is that the description does not identify the interaction by name, nor does it identify who benefits or suffers. It is simply a description of what happens.

Students read each of these cards and discuss what happens in each.  They are tasked with identifying patterns (Crosscutting Concept here!) in the ways the organisms are interacting, and they use these patterns to create their groups.  To really emphasize the Crosscutting Concept, I would explicitly discuss how we can use these patterns to help us understand what’s happening in these ecosystems. This is all a part of the Explore phase.


Explaining Interactions In Ecosystems

As we move into the Explain phase, students share their groups and the observations that led to their groupings.  Together, we identify patterns in who benefits and who suffers (or is not affected), what other factors are involved (like resources, when we consider competition), and even the difference between being hurt by a mosquito versus being eaten by a lion.  Once students have identified these groups, it’s a simple process to provide the vocabulary that goes with the group. This happens in the second part of the Explain phase, as I provide a bit of teacher-directed instruction to clarify ideas and give the scientific terminology.

I love this activity, because there are so many interesting examples for students to explore, and it is so rewarding to see them really figure it out.  While it was designed with the middle school standards in mind (MS-LS2-2), I could also see it tying into the high school Life Science standard, HS-LS2-6.

I do often follow up this activity with my videos, perhaps some notes or other online explorations, and classifying additional interactions.  These all make great Explain and Elaborate activities, and I am able to use resources I have been using for years in an appropriate way.


Keeping The Standard In Mind

One thing to consider, though.  The standard this activity was designed for doesn’t want students to just identify patterns to classify ecosystem interactions — it wants students to use patterns in interactions to make predictions.  To fully address the standard, I still need to engage my students in tasks and discussions that have them apply this understanding of interactions.  To do this, I might tie in a real world issue like the introduction of an invasive species. Students can consider the niche of the invader and native organisms in the ecosystem to make predictions about interactions – and even to predict changes in the populations involved.

If you’re not sure about this last task, stay tuned to the blog! I’ll be sure to come back to this standard in the future.


Science Teacher Tribe: Convenient and Comprehensive NGSS Professional Development

If you are anything like me, transitioning to the NGSS can be totally overwhelming.  Teaching is hard as it is – you’re busy keeping up with the “normal” lessons day to day and week to week, plus grading, meetings, IEPs, behavior management, so on and so forth. I get it. Who has the time or energy to figure out all that goes into these new standards and their impact on your curriculum, let alone what it means for your teaching!

Well, I’m happy to say there IS an easier way. You don’t HAVE to muddle through everything, and you definitely don’t have to do it alone!

Imagine feeling confident that the curriculum you designed is actually aligned to the standards, that your units incorporate the three dimensions and engage your students in Science and Engineering Practices that matter. Imagine classes full of students who take ownership of their learning, who thrive on “figuring it out” and “puzzling through it” and come to learn the content through discovery.  Imagine days where you DON’T have to stand in front of the class, battling for their attention, delivering boring lectures and notes, printing worksheet after worksheet, and wasting tons of time on review and reteaching — only to have your students fail to perform anyway. Imagine learning that sticks, and engaging activities (that you may already be doing!) but that lead to true understanding.  It’s not magic, and it doesn’t necessarily come easy, but it IS possible.  

Learn more at the Science Teacher Tribe Course and Community.