Teaching Ecology in Urban Areas

Ecology has been a long time favorite subject of mine. I’ve always liked how it got me outside and how simple it could be to study. A great deal can be done without spending a ton of money or having to acquire fancy equipment. It was also very rewarding–I always got to see something interesting any time I went out for a field study.

My tension is with teaching it in urban settings–and I have two problems that I hope to tackle.

  1. How do I teach the way I want to, when there are limited outdoor areas to take students to?
  2. How do I teach the way I want to, when there are limits on field studies taken and many steps to getting these studies approved by administration?

I have found these particular problems to be the most present in Rochester. In rural areas, one can often just use the area around the school. Here, local parks that could be walked to in this area are little more than a lawn with some planted flowers. Any place that could have a decent yield for study would require taking time from other classes and need more administrative approval. It would be extremely hard to do any sort of study that requires multiple trips or trials, somewhat depriving the students of an authentic scientific experience.

After doing some research, here’s what I found:

There are  urban ecology studies to share with students, though not as many as with wildlife ecology. Urban ecology just doesn’t seem to be as popular a study target for scientists, though it is rising.  I’ve seen studies of urban nesting of night hawks, how bird song changes due to noise pollution, community studies of local rodents, etc. The problem is that they’re not as easy to modify and replicate with students, especially with large class sizes. Many of the studies I’ve seen would require cameras, city permission, or trips to multiple parks, which may not get school approval.

What does seem to be more promising, however, are insect studies. These studies seem to need very few resources: internet and sticky traps. And since traveling range of insects can be very short, one does not have to worry as much about migration or large territories. Spiders appear to be the easiest to study because they tend to stay wherever they build their webs.

Michael W. Fall, an entomologist from Penn State, realized the difficulties of teaching ecology to urban students way back in the ’60s. He recognized that urban ecology is often ignored, and thus there is also the problem that many biology teachers don’t know how to teach it anyway. He provides some suggestions of where to look: such as vacant lots, trash cans, and rooftops; and also what to study: movement of birds, catch and release cockroaches, etc.

He proposes a number of interesting studies, which I found to be very helpful in framing my thinking. Though some would not be acceptable now due to health and safety, there are still ideas that could be done with students today.  The papers he wrote are not available for free so I cannot link to them. However, if you are a university student, feel free to look them up on the library search engine. The citations can be found below. Also check out Joseph Fail’s paper which shows how one can do a comparative study of ecology by exploring different “habitats” around the urban jungle to regular forests.

Fall, M. W. (1969). Teaching ecology in the urban environment. The American Biology Teacher, 31(9), 572-574. 10.2307/4442831

Fail, J. (1995). Teaching ecology in urban environments. The American Biology Teacher, 57(8), 522-525. 10.2307/4450047



Getting Students to Investigate Their Own Questions

When it comes to students exploring their own curiosity, I have found that it comes much easier to the younger generations. There’s still a lot that they do not know about the world, and they still believe that they don’t know much and find that incredibly exciting. As students get older, it is generally harder for them to find questions that they find worth truly investigating. Most of what they don’t know they think they can google, or they aren’t sure what they don’t know, or they just don’t care enough to pursue it.

The one thing that all ages tend to need help with is how to investigate their own questions. This is where scaffolding comes in.  Instructors might start students off with a “cookie-cutter” lab—a lab where everything is given to them, and the only part students need to do is follow the instructions. This gives them an idea of what goes into an investigation, what components their thoughts and actions need to be broken down to.  As the year progresses, the teacher can remove more and more of the training wheels, until finally students have to design their own questions and procedure. Having students investigate their own question is usually the last step.

Creating investigable questions is often the last step in fully releasing a student into the world of inquiry because everything else follows it and because it can be difficult. Students need to learn how to separate “google questions” from testable questions. Questions that start with “why” are usually too vague to start an investigation. Example: “why do giraffes have long necks?” “Why” questions need to be transformed into questions that have clear variables that are going to be tested. The question could be transformed into: “Is there evidence that giraffes use their long necks for fighting?”. That’s more testable. Even more testable, would be an “if, then” statement. If this happens or is true, then will this happen?

If students have trouble coming up with any questions at all, it may be helpful to have a brain dump session. Have them list as many questions as they can in a short period of time, without thinking about whether they are “good” or “bad”. I’ve found that giving them a phenomenon, a place, or model to focus on helps. I’ve even done it just where we walk around the outside of the school and think of questions we have about what we see. It doesn’t have to be spectacular to generate questions, but it should be something that students have some interest in.

It also helps when students know what they have to work with because this can help give them ideas. Make sure it is clear what supplies they have or can get, and where they can go. I greatly enjoy ecology because very little equipment/supplies are necessary to start an investigation. You just need a decent place.

Finally, and most importantly, it should be emphasized that this is what scientists do. They seek out the answers to their own questions. Too often, people do not really understand what it is that scientists do. The idea that their work is just them trying to answer their questions about the world around them is a very approachable angle to enter the world of science.



Emma Gonzalez, Parkland survivor, fights for students’ rights.

On February 14th, 2018, yet another school shooting occurred, this time in Parkland, Florida. 17 people died, 14 of them being students. For the last twenty years, students in america have been no stranger to the idea of school shootings. Places like Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and now Parkland, are now impossible to think about without associating them with their tragedies. I can’t even celebrate my birthday (12/14) without thinking about the 20 elementary students that were murdered on that day, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about what I’d do if a shooting happened at my school.

I remember when mass shootings were shocking. When they were all people could talk about for weeks. Recently, I’ve had shootings pass by that I almost miss. It shouldn’t be this way, and it makes me so proud that the survivors of the most recent shooting, Parkland, have decided to step up and shout “never again!”.

I can not express how grateful I am toward the wonderful, amazing students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They just survived an incredibly traumatic event and instead of staying home and recovering, they’re choosing to get angry and fight for the safety of millions. They’ve been organizing rallies, having talks with news anchors and politicians, even sacrificing attendance at friends’ funerals so that they can continue to have their voices heard. Check out their CNN town hall here.

Delaney Tarr, Parkland survivor, speaks out

The responses of the law makers hasn’t been as overwhelming as hoped. Politicians in Tallahassee refused to even debate the issue when the students traveled all the way there to talk to them.  The president is pushing ridiculous solutions to the problem. Really? Arming teachers? I’ve almost gone down the military/police route, and there’s a reason I decided not to.

Emma Gonzalez, survivor, faces off against NRA spokesperson

There are some people even claiming hoax and declaring these students “actors”. That, I think is the worst part of every shooting. The deniers. Can you imagine having just lost the most important person in your life and then being told that it never happened? Like you hadn’t just put them in the ground? Monsters.

Only some of the students and teachers that lost their lives to gun violence 2/14/2018

Thankfully, though, some change is coming from the survivors’ efforts. I’ve seen gun lovers change their minds, politicians change their minds. Law makers are working toward banning bump stocks, improving background checks, and raising the age one can purchase guns. It should help, but until they fully ban weapons that are used in war, we still have something to really worry about.

In the mean time, it falls to us to keep fighting. Students and teachers around the nation have engaged in protest. There are official ones lined up for March 14th for 17 minutes and another April 20th which is all day. I know I’ll fully support any of my students and fellow teachers who decide to participate in some way. It is our lives after all.

Parkland survivors, thank you.

What’s the Big Idea?


According to Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998), a “big idea” is a “concise statement, principle, or generalization that promotes in-depth understanding, and emphasizes the common characteristics of a unifying concept”. I like to think of it as the idea that lies at the core of a subject and guides my thinking about it.

For my innovative unit, I will be kicking off the first few weeks of ecology. I believe that the big idea for this unit is “Living things in an environment are all connected and depend on each other to create a balanced system”.

Ecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their environments: predator-prey interactions, mutualism, commensalism, parasitism, allelopathy, territorial interactions, etc. etc. These interactions, whether positive or negative, work to keep a balance in their ecosystem. When this system is disrupted, species can go extinct or be driven to near extinction. This big idea has a lot of explanatory power for the entire unit but also leaves room for lots of exploration.

Reference: Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VirginiaASCD.

Corgis: The Genetics Behind a Loaf on Legs

Corgis. They’re short. They’re compact. And they have the most beloved butts on the internet. It’s hard to imagine how the lovable little dwarf pooches could have the same common ancestor as the wolves that terrorize fairy tales.

from American Kennel Club

It’s been common knowledge for thousands of years among humans that you can breed species of animals and plants in a way that selects for specific traits. It’s how corn transformed from a gross, starchy cobb to the sweet, golden vegetable it is today. It’s how wild mustard evolved into broccoli.

It’s easy to see that traits are inherited. It’s pretty common for a child to hear that they have their mother’s eyes or their dad’s hair. Pick two members of a species that look similar, their offspring is probably gonna share their traits. So, in order to get a tall, muscular dog, down to a short, stubby dog like a corgi, they just had to continue to pair dogs that happened to have shorter legs with each other. This would’ve taken a while, but we got there. It’s a big easier these days to make “designer” dogs since we now have plenty of different traits to choose from. Just look at this Golden Dox.

The reason we’re able to make such unique breeds is all thanks to mutations. Mutations are how new traits can pop up in a population. Now, most of the time when someone says the word ‘mutation’ they’d probably think of the X-men or snakes with two heads. In reality, most mutations aren’t even visible.

A mutation happens when there’s a typo in the code in your DNA. If you think about it in terms of sentences, a small error won’t really affect your ability to read it. For example, the small cat rtn down the street. There’s an error, but it’s still understandable. Now imagine a larger mutation: te smlllc dnwt sttttt. Not really legible. Large mutations like that are very rare. However, a small mutation that results in say…a slightly shorter dog than usual would be more likely.

There’s a bit more to the genetics than that, but you get the basic idea. Next time you look at the adorable behind of a Corgi, think about all the generations of new mutations it had to go through. It’s tough work becoming that cute!

from I Love My Corgi

GISHWHES: How a Scavenger Hunt Can Promote Kindness and Why We Should Do It In Schools

GISHWHES, or The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen, is a scavenger hunt run by Random Acts and headed by “Supernatural” star Misha Collins. Each year around the first week of August, groups of 13 all around the world log in online to check the scavenger hunt list to find out what crazy, weird, and kind things they’ll be tasked with accomplishing throughout the week. Whoever turns in the most well-done stuff wins a trip with Misha to an interesting location around the world. It’s difficult, it’s exhausting, and it’s amazing.

One of the many GISHList items

Each year, Misha Collins does his best to come up with the weirdest, the most helpful, and most spectacular items on the GISHList. We’ve made portraits out of skittles, held business conferences underwater, gotten Christmas trees to float up into the atmosphere, and made kale clothing. We’ve also left coupons around stores as coupon fairies, gotten people to raise enough money to put refugee families into homes and schools, went out to entertain children in hospitals, and even built a fully-functioning school in Nicaragua aimed at helping women who otherwise would never get an education. We do fun wacky things and fun kind things, and everyone who does it has the best time of their lives.

Another item: “Scuba Ballet”

The best thing about GISHWHES is that it makes kindness fun and easy. It shows you that you can do good things and enjoy doing them. Some schools require students to do a certain amount of community service hours, but that isn’t always seen as a fun thing. Sometimes it feels like a chore or work. Once you’ve experienced it as a game, you want to continue to do it all the time. Sometimes I go back to certain list items and think about doing them on random days just because they’re fun and it’s nice to see kind things being done.

Item: “Hug a uniformed veteran”

I would like to see something like GISHWHES implemented in all schools. It’s never too early to get kids used to being kind. In fact, Beer & Probst’s (2017) studies show that students who better understand compassion and kindness do better with literacy because they can sympathize and understand characters better. They learn that being weird can be great. Not only that, students will learn how to autonomously divide up work, work as a team, problem solve and plan, innovate, and discover that they’re capable of doing amazing things if they actually try.

Item: “Your advice to the world”

I imagine that schools could either make GISHWHES into a seasonal after-school program like sports are, or could do a week or so where half of the day or a period is spent doing GISHWHES stuff maybe right before the holidays, at the end of the school year, or at the start of the school year. A few modifications would have to be made–you might not ask students to pay the small fee to participate (in GISHWHES this fee goes into the winner’s trip and RandomActs charity work) and supplies would have to be provided. I hope someday this can happen in all schools.

Syrian family after being moved to France and given a new home and school paid for. While in Syria the mother had been shot and paralyzed and one of the daughters attempted suicide so that her family would have more food.


Beers, K. & Probst, R. (2017). The Compassionate Reader. Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters (pp. 44-51). New York, NY: Scholastic.

Ambitious Science Teaching: Modeling

The 4 main parts of AST.

Ambitious science teaching is a program developed by the NSA to better science teaching. According to their website, their goal is to “support students of all backgrounds to deeply understand science ideas, participate in the activities of the discipline, and solve authentic problems”. Our cohort has talked about AST throughout the year; but more recently we’ve decided to delve deeper into their toolkit. My focus for this week is modeling.

Modeling is used in science all the time. We can use them to explain, visualize, and predict phenomena. We see it in everything from a model of the solar system to mathematical predictions of population trends.Modeling in the classroom can be used in a number of ways. Following what AST has to say, they’re usually used in the following manner…

Step 1: The model gets introduced at the start of a new concept or unit, usually given to students as a model scaffold. Students write down their initial ideas about how they believe the concept should work. This part of the model is used to initiate student thinking and to gauge prior knowledge.

Step 2: Around halfway through the unit, students return to their initial models. They add what they’ve learned and modify it accordingly. This visualizes student thinking and shows them how much more they’ve learned. The “building” onto prior knowledge also follows Vygotsky’s theory of constructivist learning (people make meaning by building onto previous ideas and knowledge). The teacher can also use these models to see what still needs to be taught and plan accordingly. And, of course, students can compare with each other to find improvements that can be made to their models and learn through each other.

Step 3: At the end of the unit, students revisit their models once again, and modify based on what they’ve learned. Again, students can compare with each other and see how much their knowledge has increased over time. The final model can also be used as an assessment.

Earlier on in the Warner program, we used models more frequently to help us visualize what we already know and use that to generate questions and create experiments. For example, in order to investigate something about water quality in Lake Ontario, we first made a model of the things that affect water quality (the “need to knows”). We were then able to make a list of questions that we still had and needed to answer. Experimental designs were then produced from those. Similar model uses were implemented when we did the science camp at Sodus. We’ve also made models to visualize what students should be able to understand by the end of the unit to help with our planning.

In observing schools, so far I’ve mostly seen teachers utilize models for assessing prior knowledge and for visualizing concepts. For example, my CT has had students make a model of an atom before deciding how she was going to start teaching the biochemistry unit. She wanted to know what misconceptions she needed to correct, where she needed to start from, and how much time she would need to spend on the topic. In visualizing concepts, she has had students make models of connecting concepts, such as the energy transfer in food webs and the relations of various types of human impact. I have yet to see another teacher do steps 2 or 3 of the AST model process or use them for inquiry, and I’d like to see much more of that.

Example of a model scaffold filled in.

As for what we will be required to do in our teaching, the NGSS expects students to develop and use models. They warn against making models just to make models or use them as sort of faux art projects. Many of the classrooms past have too often used modeling as an excuse to make things like pretty clay cells without actually using them to really make meaning or engage thinking. Since they state it much clearer than I could, take a look at how they’ve described modeling:

The modeling process should be emphasized, rather than the model itself. Students should be able to develop the model, evaluate the effectiveness of their model in explaining the phenomenon, use the model to help explain relationships and develop further questions, then go back to revise their model after further investigation. The concept that models are dynamic—they change depending on the variables and parts with the system, in addition to being revised as a result of further observation and investigation—is critical. Models are not static, isolated diagrams!

Data and evidence should be used consistently to support the development of student models and the claims students make as a result of their analysis. The social nature of models should also be emphasized. Discussion, sharing, presenting, and argumentation should all be included in the modeling process. Not only should students examine how their model works, but it’s important to also ask students to consider the limitations of their model.

If anyone out there wants to share how they’ve seen or used models in the classroom, feel free to comment below!

Instructional Rounds: Improving Classroom Environment Observation

Medical rounds from the TV show “Scrubs”

This week, I attended an after-school meeting briefing several teachers who agreed to participate in a trial run of a new teaching practice. There was a diversity of content teachers, some English, some science, social studies, math, etc. The new practice was called “Instructional Rounds” which is very much like how it sounds. Half of the group of teachers would put in for a sub for a day and spend the morning observing the other half of the teachers. The afternoon would be spent analyzing the data they collected. Another day, they would switch groups.

The data collected would not be judgmental. Names of teachers and students aren’t used. It would simply be a collection of anonymous noticings of what went on in the classroom. Teachers could observe how students interacted with texts, what the observed teacher did to increase engagement, whatever. It just had to be a clear record of what occurred without any statements that leaned in a direction of judging good or bad. The idea, at the end of the day, is to recognize practices that you would like to incorporate and realize not-so-good practices in your own teaching, which is done by looking at the objective transcripts the other teachers provide. A teacher might be doing something they don’t even realize they’re doing.

Another part of the practice is choosing a focus for observation. We first talked about so-and-so’s research about the core, how we need to balance an increase in professional skill with an increase in content level and student engagement. Otherwise, the “improvements” don’t actually better the class. For example, if you increase the level of content and professional knowledge, you can end up teaching at the students. The volunteer teachers were told to keep this core research in mind as they observe. In the end, the focus, or topic, the teachers decided on  was engaging student thinking.

As a preservice teacher, I can’t help but think that observational rounds are a good idea. We already have to go around and observe multiple teachers to find what we would like and wouldn’t like to incorporate into our practices. It also gives the teachers a chance to get to see their teaching from a different angle. It will be interesting to see how it turns out, especially since there’s a big chance they might end up observing me.


City, E. et al. (2009). Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Publishing Group.


STANYS: A First-Timer’s Review

My visit to STANYS last weekend marked a first for me in conference attending. I was looking forward to going, despite the large pile of homework I was putting off in order to go. The previous week I’d gone through the list of workshops available, circled which ones I wanted to attend. I packed a backpack for all of the swag I was sure to receive, and I picked out a professional outfit to wear since I was told that this was to be a networking opportunity.

When I arrived in the lobby of the hotel, I immediately noticed a number of others there for the conference. There was one problem–none of them were dressed professionally. Instead, an assortment of science t-shirts paired with jeans were on parade. I realized that there would be no hiding the fact that me and my cohort were newbies.

After the rest of the cohort arrived, we rushed off to find our first workshops. James and Sydney took off for the chemistry ones. Olivia and I quickly ducked into an online medical resource lecture. I’ve never gained so many resources in a single class, and I never knew so many medically-related online resources there were for students. A few that were mentioned were MedlinePlus, Nobel Science Games, and Teen Health.  Overall, I felt that it was a great lecture because it gave me many resources I could using in my own classroom.

The second workshop was not as good as I expected it to be (and thus I will avoid naming it). It felt like they were just trying to sell their materials, versus providing a good lesson like I had expected. There were many problems with their lesson plan, so the only benefit I got from this workshop was listening to the other teachers at my table critique it and offer how they would make it better.

The last two workshops were fantastic. The Decomposition of a Chicken workshop showed us how we could use a single topic–forensics of decomposition– and use it to explore multiple facets of biology: animal behavior, evolution, ecology, development, etc. The other workshop (Just Change One Thing) provided us with a lesson on workshopping questions and how to get students generating good questions. Both workshops gave me a lot to think about in regards to my future lessons.

The final component of the conference, vendor booths, was not as helpful as I had hoped. The majority of the booths were selling textbooks, subscriptions, and science equipment. I am a preservice teacher, therefore I could only admire the pretty textbooks for sale and try to avoid the salespeople trying to get me to buy things. Only one booth was useful because it provided access to free lesson plans. All in all, I decided that the vendors room was just not very useful for those not in the position to be looking to buy school supplies. I did, however, buy a rather adorable stuffed ammonite.

Final impression: the workshops were mostly good. The vendor’s room might be good if I were actually a teacher. Networking is still not my strong suit, and I learned that they provide a swag bag.  I imagine my experience will be much improved for next time.





Assessment: What Is It Good For?

As a student, I hated tests. Even when I knew the content, it didn’t stop me from getting nervous about them, and it always meant a night of cramming in extra studying. As an upcoming teacher, I’ve started to understand why they’re necessary. There needs to be something to let me know whether I’m doing a good job, whether we’re moving too fast, and if the students are understanding what I’m teaching. It’s more a tool to assess the teacher’s work than a harsh tool for judging the students.

This year, I’ve learned that there are multiple forms of assessment. There’s formal and informal, and formative and summative. Formal assessment is assessment based in standards and statistics. You’re comparing a student’s knowledge against other students’ and what is expected to be learned for their grade as stated in the standards. Informal assessments are performance and content driven. It’s not all statistical, like formal is. Think running reading records and detailed notes about students’ performance. In a perfect world where I teach the same small group of students over their entire schooling, I would only use informal assessments and let students learn at a pace that is good for them, and not worry too much about whether their age matches what some standards say they should. Unfortunately, we have to teach with a large amount of students that will get passed on to the next teacher next year, so the sort of flexibility we’d need to  completely get rid of formal assessment is not really attainable.

Formative assessments are assessments that are done throughout a large chunk of content material. They are done daily, and often without students noticing. They are meant to keep track of student understanding throughout the day. They let the teacher know whether to move on to the next idea, or whether they need to spend a little more time on it. They let the teacher know the strengths and weaknesses of each child per subject. They let the teacher know what is working for their students and what isn’t. It’s extremely helpful for day-to-day planning, and it is easy on the students because this type of assessment doesn’t require a grade.

Summative assessments are those assessments that students stress over. The big unit tests. The quizzes. The finals. The portfolios. They test what a students has learned over a longer period of time. Until recently, I struggled with even coming up with a reason for needing them. In my younger days, they were often  basically memorization tests. It never really felt like they helped me as a student because I’d forget whatever it was I memorized later on. I didn’t see any point in it for helping teachers. Why would they need a summative assessment if they were doing formative ones every day? They knew what we knew.  It honestly wasn’t until today that the answer finally hit me. Application. Summative assessments are great for testing application. They can’t be done until all the little concepts are learned anyway. But if these are done at the end of a unit, and they aren’t revisited, how will we ever address what we learned from those assessments?

What we really need is not a debate of whether each kind of assessment is necessary, but how they should be done. I have had exactly three classes where I felt assessments were being done well. Those classes were Band, First Aid, and Fundamentals of Biology (in college). I felt that these classes were fantastic because the assessments that were used in these classes actually helped me as a student, instead of just producing a grade. I’ll address each individually:


In band, it was easy to tell when you were doing something wrong and what that was. You can literally hear when a mistake is being made, so you know exactly what needs to be improved while you are performing. If there’s something you didn’t hear, the conductor did. They’ll immediately address what it was and stop the class so that the section that made the mistake can work on fixing whatever that was with their guidance. There were, of course, written exams as well, but what was on the test were things that were talked about and applied every day. FFF? That means super loud. I remember seeing it on that piece we played yesterday. In band, feedback is immediate, it is clear, and it is authentic.

First Aid

In first aid you practice what you will be informally tested every day. It is practical and authentic. Teachers are able to tell you how to improve each day because you are tested each day. The final test is an authentic summative assessment. You are given a situation in which first aid needs to be applied, and you have to do it correctly or the “person” you’re helping will be injured worse or even “die”. The best part of this is that there is a chance to be tested again if for whatever reason (nerves, unaddressed misconceptions, etc.) messes you up. It is very bad if you mess up first aid in the real world, so teachers want to make sure you can apply first aid without even thinking about it. The constant informal testing really helped me: both in getting rid of nerves and fear of asking questions, and in keeping me in the know of what I need to improve on.

Fundamentals of Biology

I was very sad that I never got another class in college that used assessment in the same way that Fundamentals of  Biology did. To start, we had to do online modules every week. You had to do them until you got a high enough percentage correct. So, you had to do them until you showed that you understood the concept. Secondly, there was a short quiz every other week. This kept students studying every day like they were supposed to. When the midterms and finals eventually came around, we felt much more prepared for them and less cramming was needed to be done. In other lecture classes, midterms and finals were all we got to keep track of how we were doing. It was much harder to regulate studying and to really understand how well you were doing every week with only a few tests per entire semester.

I hope to use some of these techniques in planning my own assessments in my future. Please take what you like.