Connecting to the Natural World – Biome Bonanza!

A Biome Bonanza!

After taking a class for teachers about sustainability several years ago, my teaching partner and I were inspired to get kids out and about and connected to the natural world more. We looked at our science curriculum and with the help of Bob Carlson and his staff at our district’s CREST Center, we developed a couple of great overnight experiences for our students.

By Lisa Terrall, Bolton Elementary School
West Linn, Oregon

iving in Oregon, we have easy access to many different biomes in which living things have adapted differently to their environments and lots of locations where evidence of volcanic activity is visible. In 4th grade, we did a lot of work around plant and animal adaptations, as well as geological changes to the Earth. We developed a 4 day “Biome Bonanza,” during which we spent a day at the coast, a day in an Oak Savannah and two days in the Columbia River Gorge.

Our day at the beach is a day trip. We stop at a spot in the coast range mountains where we can find sea floor fossils at a fairly high elevation. This allows kid to begin to see evidence of plate tectonics and how the crust that used to be the sea floor was lifted and is now part of a mountain. They love discovering and trying to identify the fossils they find and are amazed at how dynamic the Earth is.

Our next stop is at the coast. We spend quite a bit of time exploring local tide pools and finding creatures that live there. Students get to see species they have researched up close and are able to begin to identify the structures and functions of their bodies and how they help with survival in that particular environment. Tide pools are great because they have multiple zones within them and the adaptations are different from zone to zone, as well as from tide pools to other surrounding environments like the ocean or the coastal forests. After our time in the tide pools we take a short forest hike, looking for how the environment is different, as well as how species have adapted for survival. We also get a good look at some of Oregon’s rocky cliffs and are able to see evidence of past basalt flows.

Our next day is spent in our town of West Linn, at a local Nature Conservancy preserve called Camassia. It is walking distance from our school and we are able to see more evidence of basalt flows, as the entire preserve is on top of columnar basalt with much of it exposed. The soil here is very thin and students are able to see how plants have adapted to this condition. They love being able to compare this to the coastal forest they were in just the day before. They are always amazed that the same basalt flow they are standing on stretches all the way to the coast and is contained in the cliffs they were able to see the prior day. It begins to give them a sense of connectivity and the magnitude of the volcanic events of the past. While we are there, we take the temperature of a pond and get a water sample to test for pH and turbidity when we return to school. Testing the water sample gives our students time to practice using the testing equipment and to recall 3rd grade learning around salmon and what they need (as far as water conditions) to survive.

The next two days of our outdoor experience is spent on the road in the Columbia River Gorge. We take our 4th graders on an overnight trip to see more evidence of the basalt flows, learn about the Missoula Floods that shaped the gorge and our local valley, and to do more comparison of the plant and animal adaptations in yet a different environment. We spend time at a wildflower preserve, taking in the panoramic views of the gorge and identifying/sketching wildflowers. Students love identifying the flowers with a plant identification book and trying to figure out their adaptations. This area is quite windy and exposed to the weather being high up at the top of the gorge, so students get to see waxy leaf coatings, things growing low to the ground and even some hairy leaves. They compare that to the large, flat, shiny leaves they had seen in days prior in the coastal forest.

We also go to a local museum to hear and see a program about the Missoula Floods. This allows students to get more information from an expert about how the gorge they have just viewed came to be. We spend time at the museum exploring the Ice Age exhibit and taking a guided walk around the grounds to hear more about and see native flora and fauna.

That night we go to pizza and swim at a local pool before crashing on the floor of a grade school.

The next day we spend time at Hood River Middle School hearing from Michael Becker and his science students about how they are continuing to strive to create a more sustainable space for learning. They have an amazing greenhouse that is ever evolving to include new and innovative things. The middle school students give our 4th graders a tour of the area, including a discussion about the geothermal energy system under the soccer field. This is a very inspiring part of the trip and spurs our students on to thinking about ways we can improve what we do at our own school.

When we leave the middle school, we head to a local falls area and go on a great hike. Students see and point out evidence of basalt flows, erosion, plant and animal adaptations and enjoy the outdoors. We also find a spot to pull out water testing equipment and run stations for students to test pH, temperature, and turbidity, as well as to collect and identify macroinvertebrate samples. This is always a highlight of the trip! At the end of our water stations, students make a determination about whether or not this stream is a healthy one for fish using their data as evidence.

Our trip is capped off by a visit to Bonneville Dam to see the fish ladders and learn how electricity of created from water flow.

Overall, we have a great trip and students gain so much! They are able to see and touch things that they have studied in science class. They make connections, ask lots of great questions and enjoy the beauty of our natural spaces. We hear back from many students and parents that they re-visit many of the locations as a family at a later time and that the students are great tour guides with lots of information to share.

 

As curriculum and teaching assignments have changed, we have tweaked this trip for 5th grade. We are able to review past learning about salmon, plant and animal adaptations, and geology, as well as focus on new learning about energy. This year it is a two-night, three-day trip that will include many of the above activities, but will also include a day that has a visit to the Biglow Wind Farm in Wasco to see windmills in action, and a visit to White River Falls State Park to see a now defunct powerhouse at the base of a falls. We will also spend time at a local business in Hood River learning about their commitment to renewable energy and seeing their solar roof. Our students have been researching renewable energy in class and this will give them opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors while seeing things they have previously read about.

We feel these experiences are important for students now more than ever. In an increasingly digital world, it could be easy for students to be indoors more and pay less attention to the natural world around them. In addition to making the classroom learning feel more real, these trips get kids out, get them active, and help them connect to the wonder and beauty of our natural world.

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