2008-2009 Adams Middle School

Six Graduate Student Fellows are working with Peg Dabel, John Eby, and Marilyn Gonzalez and their 7th grade students each week throughout this school year. Following a series of visits to the school to become acquainted with the 7th graders at Adams Middle School, the Fellows—Gordon Bennett, Greg Byrnes, Peter Cowan, Emily Limm, Jenny McGuire, and Jessica Shade—enjoyed a series of teaching experiences, which they have summarized below:


Keeping a Notebook – Emily
Leaf drawing
Notebooks not only are a repository of original information, but also help scientists get to know their subject of study by allowing scientists to spend time making careful drawings, descriptions, and generating ideas and questions. The contents of well-kept notebooks provide the detailed accounts of where, when, and how a scientist documented a particular event or made a discovery. We introduced the students to how scientists record such observations by having them prepare an example entry into a scientific notebook. The students carefully observed and made a pencil sketch of a leaf. They added written descriptions about the size, texture, and color of the leaf to the drawing in order to communicate more of what they observed than was conveyed by the sketch alone. Through this activity the students practiced their observing and description skills and learned to appreciate how much information can be communicated through these simple techniques.

A Visit to the Berkeley Natural History Museums – Jessica
At the Botanical Garden
In October 2008 we brought our students to the University of California's Berkeley Natural History Museums, where we showed them the diversity of organisms that Cal scientists study and the ways that specimens are preserved and stored.

The UC Botanical Garden provided a rich display of living plant diversity. Our 7th graders were very impressed by how different the vegetation was between regions of the world and they felt as though they were traveling across the world during the tour. Many of our students were not born in the United States and they were especially excited to see plants from their home countries.

At the Essig Museum of Entomology the students were introduced to the amazing variety of colors and shapes found in insects. They learned the parts of the insect body and saw examples of mimicry, cryptic and warning coloration, and sexual dimorphism. And, before they left, we asked them to use their observation and recording skills to make a detailed drawing of a specimen they saw there.

During their visit to the UC and Jepson Herbaria the students learned how plants come into the collection, and how the specimens are organized into cabinets by family. Then they were challenged to locate and retrieve a specimen from the collection cabinets.

The last stop was a tour of the Museum of Paleontology's fossil displays and the collections in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. It is always impressive to see a T.rex skeleton and a whale skull! Students were also impressed with the preserved snakes and the amazing birds of paradise.

The enormity of the collections and thoughtful educational details provided during the tours left the students with a deeper understanding of how many types of unique and interesting organisms exist.

What's an Insect? Lookin' at Walking Stick Insects – Gordon
A student drawing of a walking stick insect
Students observed the Indian walking stick insect (Carausius morosus). C. morosus is native to India, but has been anthropogenically spread to England and North America. They feed on the plants (ivy or other fleshy, leafy plants), which they resemble to avoid predation by blending into their environment. First we discussed what an entomologist does (since students were all going to become entomologists) and what the parts of an insect are. Then students were given one or more insect specimen(s) to examine. Each student was instructed to sketch their insect, label the parts, and answer questions on an accompanying handout. Sample questions include: "How do you know the walking stick is an insect?" and "Explain why a walking stick insect looks like a stick?" To encourage further learning, we left the walking stick insects in each of the participating classrooms. We set up a terrarium with ivy and dirt to create a suitable habitat. Students were put in charge of feeding and watering the walking sticks and they also kept a log of observations regarding the walking sticks' behavior and growth. Who knew walking sticks ate their own exoskeleton after molting?

Observing Diversity and Similarities in Insect Orders – Gordon
Student drawing of a dragonfly
In this lesson students examined insects from different orders to observe and document the similarities and differences among them. Insects are the most diverse animal group on the planet. To open the lesson we held an "ohhhh ahhhh" discussion informing students that insects are 400 million years old and only one million of an estimated ten million have been described. We discussed how scientists identify and name insects, placing them into orders based on similarities. For the main activity, we borrowed insect collections from the Essig Museum of Entomology to share with the students. The insects were arranged into drawers representing a variety of different insect orders. Groups of students were given an insect drawer and asked to observe them closely, noting similarities and differences among them and then to sketch and label their favorite insect. As an underlying question/concept, we encouraged students to think about (bio)diversity, and to think critically about why insects are so diverse. To wrap up the lesson, students shared their observations and we discussed the question of "why insects are so diverse?"

The Moorea Connection
Writing letters to Moorea students
As an international organization, GK-12 gives students the unique experience of being able to communicate about science with students from other areas of the world. In this lesson, students wrote letters about their experiences with California wildlife to students in Moorea, an island in French Polynesia. In their letters, they described and sketched a scientific drawing of an organism displayed on their lab benches, such as a prepared squirrel or woodpecker.

The students related positively to this exercise, especially when pictures of the students were shown during a Powerpoint presentation. We were even lucky enough to have a teacher from the Moorean school visiting the Bay Area, who discussed the differences between the lives of American children and Moorean children. The students especially loved hearing about one of the common activities practiced by Moorean adolescents: spear fishing!

The Great Fossil Find – Jessica
Great Fossil Find
While bringing students into the field is difficult in a 45-minute class, simulations and stories allow them to experience the excitement of field research. This lesson combined story-telling, costumes, and cut-out images of fossils to replicate a paleontological dig. Each group of students was allowed to look at three fossils at a time, and, based on their observations, make hypotheses about the natural history of the animal the fossils belonged to. Toward the end of the lesson, the groups were allowed to collaborate with one another, sharing information about the fossils they had gathered.

The students enjoyed the puzzle-like attributes of this activity, and used the data they collected to make predictions about a scientific situation. They also learned more about the scientific process by discussing how this simulation was similar to current archeological research.

The Clipbird Lesson – Jessica
The effect selection has on evolution is difficult to demonstrate in a classroom setting. This lesson showed students the effects of selection on survival, reproduction rate, and phenotypic change over time. In this simulation the students were divided into two groups (West and East Clipland), and each student was given a small, medium, or large clip, which acted as a beak for them to pick up various types of food. If the students collected enough food in one generation (represented by a 30-second time interval), they were able to survive and reproduce. As the types of food changed from generation to generation, so did the advantages of having different types of beaks. In West Clipland the food was consistently large, while in East Clipland the food was small and easy to pick up with small clips.

At the end of the lesson we observed the differences between beak sizes in the two groups. The students noticed that in West Clipland the only surviving students had large "beaks," while in East Clipland there were both large and small "beaks." They were thus able to see how selective pressures, such as food type, result in changes in traits over time.

Consequences of Variation – Greg
Walking stick
In this unit, students explored the consequences of variation within a population over a series of three activities. In the clipbirds lesson described above, students learned how selection effects variation within a population over time. In the second lesson, students applied what they had learned by measuring morphological variation within a population of walking stick insects. Then they developed hypotheses about the consequences of this variation on their locomotor performance. The students designed an experiment to test their hypothesis that small walking sticks would glide a greater distance than larger ones. In the final class period, students tested their hypothesis with the student-designed experiment, in which they glided the insects, measured the distance traveled, and graphed the results. In wrapping up the experiment, students suggested ways in which to improve the experiment they had designed.

Allowing the students to come up with a testable hypothesis and designing an experiment that tests the hypothesis provided a way for students to be directly involved in the scientific process. While not explicitly following a schematic of the process of science, the students intuitively did science, making observations, coming up with hypotheses, and testing them, with little input required from the fellows or teacher. Most rewarding though was that after conducting the experiment, many students could suggest ways to make it better. The two walking stick lessons were inspired by a Ph.D. student's dissertation project and the Adams 7th graders came up with basically the same hypotheses and experimental design as an on-going research project.

Extinction – Jenny
A student records his observations of a bobcat skull. Click for an enlargement.
When the students returned from Christmas break, we introduced them to an intriguing creature that lived in California as few as 10,000 years ago, the giant ground sloth. In our first extinction lesson, the students were paleontologists who "travelled" to the famous La Brea Tar Pits of Las Angeles and collected different fossil skeletal elements. They examined each element (an arm bone, a claw, and a jaw) and deduced how the animal lived based on morphology. In doing so, they learned how paleontologists can use small pieces of information from different parts of the animal to determine what an extinct animal was like.

At the end of the first lesson, the students came up with many hypotheses about why they thought the ground sloth may have gone extinct. During the second lesson, we further explored these hypotheses, as the students gathered facts related to their ideas. At the end of the lesson, they voted on which hypotheses were rejected by their data. They then discussed the idea that multiple hypotheses for the cause of this extinction were valid. In this lesson, the students learned that there are often multiple abiotic and biotic factors that converge and lead to extinctions. They also experienced how paleontologists use the scientific process to reject hypotheses and gain insight into the past.

In the third lesson of this series, the students got to explore many more fossils from the La Brea Tar Pits. After exploring how ground sloths may have become extinct, the students looked at examples of lots of other animals that lived at the same time as the ground sloths. They matched the skulls of these animals with the animals' names, and learned which ones went extinct at the same time as the ground sloth. Through this lesson, the students learned that California ecosystems of 15,000 years ago looked very different from today's because most of the large-bodied animals of that time went extinct.

For the final lesson, students were arranged in small groups and discussed different California species that are in danger of going extinct. They learned and talked about what factors were leading to these species' declines, and what we as a society and they as individuals can do to help protect endangered species.

This module of lessons provided the students with the exciting and unique opportunity to use fossils from California's most famous fossil site in conjunction with the scientific process to explore the causes and effects of extinctions. Once they learned about the dramatic changes that have occurred in the past, they were able to explore how humans are endangering modern-day plants and animals.

Germinating Seeds – Peter
Treating seeds
During the month of March we explored seeds and seed growth, or germination. In our first lesson, we explored the inner workings of a lima bean seed. We learned about and drew the seed coat, cotyledons, and embryo of a bean. We then compared our lima beans to other seeds like corn (which has only one cotyledon, not two like our bean), avocadoes, and apple seeds. We also had bags of freshly sprouted (five days old) lima beans on hand to take a closer look at what happens to each part of the seed when they start growing.

Armed with the knowledge of seed inner workings, we took to the schoolyard to plant a variety of California native plants. However, these were not your run-of-the-mill, throw-it-in-the-ground-with-water seeds. Each type of seed needed their own special pre-planting treatment. Some required being roughed up by sand paper to simulate a disturbed area, like a landslide. Others required being boiled in water and treated with liquid smoke to mimic the heat and chemicals that would occur in a wildfire. After doing these treatments as a class, we planted and marked the seeds, so we can watch them grow for the rest of the school year.

In our last two lessons, we conducted an experiment that focused on the germination of a fire-adapted weed and a common farm crop. We wanted to know if these two types of seeds had different responses to chemicals like liquid smoke, or treatments like boiling. Each group of four students set up their own experiment to test how a chemical or treatment affected the number of seeds that germinated within a week. As is common in science, the experiment was only a partial success—none of our fire weeds germinated at all! On the other hand, students reinforced their skills at forming hypotheses and designing experiments, and we found that adding liquid smoke to wheatgrass seeds cause them to germinate less well than water alone.

The Effect of Extinction on the Ecological Web – Jessica
The Effect of Extinction on the Ecological Web
An ecological community is comprised of a complicated web of interactions among species. Some of these interactions, such as pollination of flowers by bees, are helpful to both of the species; others can be negative or mixed, such as when a grasshopper is eaten by a frog (bad for the grasshopper, good for the frog!). To model species interactions and their consequences, we created a resource exchange game in which the students played the roles of different, interacting organisms. As they read scenarios described on game cards, the students (acting as different organisms) exchanged "resource chips" according to the costs and benefits of the interaction described on the card. For example, when a carnivorous plant ate a fly, the carnivorous plant took a chip from the prey (the fly). After going through a number of different scenarios, students looked to see how their species fared. Next, in the second part of the game, we removed a species to simulate the extinction of one of the species in the community. The students then ran through the game again to explore what would happen to the remaining species in the community.

The students loved the tactile, competitive nature of the game, cheering as they gained chips and moaning sadly as they lost chips to other classmates. We wrapped up the lesson by discussing the complicated ecological web, and effects they experienced before and after extinctions.

Species Interactions in the School Yard – Jessica
Students are often unaware of the diversity of life that surrounds them. Building on the previous activity that introduced different kinds of ecological interactions, we took to the school yard in search of examples of these interactions. The students spent the period searching for organisms, recording what kinds of organisms they found and how these organisms interacted with other species in their ecological community. The students enjoyed discovering new knowledge about their surroundings, noticing, for the first time, plants and animals they passed by every day. At the end of the activity, the students shared what they had found with the rest of the class, comparing the obvious (such as birds and trees) with the harder to find (such as tiny beetles and earthworms).

River of Shame – Jessica
River of Shame
Many of us know about sources and effects of pollution, but don't really stop to think much about how widespread it is, how human activities contribute to it, and where it all goes. Garden chemicals, gas and oil residues, sediment, and trash are just of few of the types of pollutants that accumulate in the environment all around us everyday. Waterways are particularly vulnerable because runoff from the rain washes pollutants right into creeks, rivers and bays. In this lesson students created a visual model of the accumulating effects of pollutants from human activities along a river running into the bay. Students drew pictures of restaurants, schools, parks, gas stations, etc. along a river drawn on a large sheet of paper. After reviewing the different types of pollutants that might be released into the environment from the human activities and businesses they had drawn, the students added color-coded stickers representing different types of pollutants to the river. The final product visually models how many different types of pollution can flow into our waterways from our businesses, schools and roads. We finished up the lesson by discussing ways to decrease environmental impacts during planning, and classic cases of pollution from the past, such as DDT.

The students enjoyed creating images of different human activities along the river and were amazed by how quickly toxins could accumulate in the river and bay. The connection between their own lives and the health of our river and bay ecosystem became clear to the students as we discussed the amount of trash around their middle school campus, and the "flows to bay" drains they have seen on the sides of streets. The original "River of Shame" lesson is from the GK12 section of the University of Toledo Lake Erie Center's website.

Previous Years

2007-2008 AMS activities

2006-2007 AMS activities

2005-2006 AMS activities

2004-2005 AMS activities