Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why should we care about ants?

I want to share an update about a fantastic workshop I attended last week.  I was fortunate to have been offered a spot in the 2012 Summer Session of the Urban Ecology Institute along with some amazing science teachers from L.A. and Boston schools.  As participants, we had the opportunity to work along side leading field biologists and to contribute to their NSF-funded field-research by assisting them in data collection.  The project topics included: crow intelligence research, tracking feral cats, identifying invasive plant species, and classifying ant diversity within urban habitats. After a week in the field, each team collaborated to modify their respective field-work experiences into an inquiry-based curricula for kids and also presented their work to the entire institute.

My group worked on ants.  The projects' specific aim was to look at species diversity in three different urban green spaces: community gardens, forests, and tall grass/wild flower fields, in order to answer the question, do certain habitats aid in the preservation of native ant species?  Specifically, do green areas that are connected to larger green spaces (>150 Ha) preserve a greater diversity of native ant species than do isolated green sites?

While I vaguely knew that ants are important players in the garden, I now appreciate the magnitude of their countless contributions to the world ecosystem.  Just to list a few.  Ants disperse seeds, pollinate plants, and are said to turnover more soil than earthworms.  I was also reminded that ants are predators, herbivores, decomposers, and scavengers.

If you want to check out our teaching tools please visit the wikispace below for ideas on ant projects for kids!


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Inquiry-based awakening

Inquiry-based learning/teaching is something I've been recently bitten by.  Last spring I took a course with one of the most inspiring professors I have ever met; now I am completely hooked.  I am looking forward, but I can't help but feel some smidgen of regret at not having been taught this way myself in earlier schooling.  I think my whole outlook on testing, education, and knowledge evaluation, would have been changed, and for the better, by being exposed to this pedagogy earlier in life.

I guess the teaching method formally came about in the 1960's, but it's new to me.  As many of you may know, this form of active learning sets students (in small collaborative groups) upon a clearly defined problem to solve.  The instructor decides the objectives for the lesson and the project can last for several weeks before the task is completed.  This seems perfectly suited for teaching kids (or adults) about science.  Problem-based learning lends itself to building student confidence and developing skills for tackling problems they have never seen before. Whereas subject-based learning, lecture format, is perfect for being told just what we need to know, studying it for the exam, and regurgitating the information for a grade, problem-based learning starts with a problem being presented, then students themselves need to identify what they need to know to solve the problem, and finally through active team participation they learn the subject matter, critically apply their ideas in action, and make discoveries.

As with virtually all good things, moderation and balance are key.  Group assignments and individual work is equally important.  It strikes me that the inquiry-based philosophy achieves this balance.  This teaching methodology is labor intensive.  Effective curriculum and lessons are best designed by teachers who have already participated in doing the lesson themselves, ahead of time with a small group of colleagues.  This format requires a ton of time, effort, and foresight on the part of the instructor.

That said, I am thrilled to be attending two inquiry-based curriculum design workshops this summer!