Create an Ecosystems Project with Your Students and Get Them Engaged
Before implementing this project, review the previous articles in the series on how to initiate a unit on ecosystems. Shortly after the introductory lesson teachers can initiate the start of an exploratory project that children will do, and more importantly, will want to do, on their own over the course of the study.
Engage Your Students in Choosing a Project
I'm adamant in any course of study that children be able to work within the parameters of the unit goals to pursue their own interests. I think kids take seriously that which they had a part in planning rather than having to accomplish something that someone else feels is important.
Ask the children to consider an organism that they want to focus upon during the course of the study. Describe an organism as any living thing. Make sure they know it can be a plant, animal or even algae. Within the next couple of days tell them that the organism they chose to learn more about is going to be the focus of a project that they will undertake, and which will be determined by them.
Post a piece of chart paper on the board and have them brainstorm with you ideas about what kinds of things they might do in order to learn and share information about their chosen organism. "Think of something that you would like to do, something you would be excited about doing to learn more about your organism."
Children typically run the gambit of ideas. Your chart will be filled with fantastic possibilities. In the past my charts have been filled with ideas including dioramas, models, presentations, pictures, research, photos, power point, posterboard visuals, video presentation, books, and bringing in live specimens.
Narrow Down the Idea
When you have a chart full of wonderful ideas find a way to narrow it down, of course, with help from the children. "Should we all do a diorama or should we pick three things from the list that we should do as part of our project?" With the children's help you can structure the project around a given set of guidelines, allowing as much choice as possible.
When it comes to the information teachers may have to designate various criteria as far as what information children need to provide and the information should include the organism and its function within the ecosystem to which it belongs. As a teacher you don't want the children finding out only about penguins, for example, but what living and non-living things penguins depend on to survive, their purpose within an ecosystem, human or natural interferences that impact on their ecosystems....the focus should be more on the organisms small part within a natural structure.
Enjoy the Results
I think about the ideas the children generate during the brainstorm session and compare it to the typical task of having them research an organism and do a five page report on it to read to the class. Snoozer. Instead I get to look forward to power point presentations for those computer enthusiasts, live specimen visits, models, dioramas, and a host of other creative endeavors that the children did out of sheer will rather than by force.
Teachers should plan to come up with a time frame for the project's completion with the children once the project is fully organized. Let them decide, with your loving guidance, how much time they need to do their projects. They'll abide better to their own time lines than yours.