Works in Progress: Making the most of your environmental education opportunities

Sneak up on them, and they’ll learn.
On their own.

By Jim Martin

How do you take care of all the background capacity building students need to make the most of environmental education field trips that they take during the school year? With tight school budgets and time that has to be reprogrammed to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind testing, place-based learning has become difficult for teachers to do. Here is a simple idea that saves valuable class time, engages students, and prepares them to understand the work they will do on field trips.

I learned how to do this through a combination of desperation while confronting my class schedule, and an inherent trust in the nature of learning as students express it. Basically, you just set up an experiment where students can see it when they come into the classroom, then rely on their native curiosity for the rest. You don’t have to do anything after the initial setup, and you can tell students they won’t have to know the material for tests. That hooks them, and they learn.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say that your students will be studying a stream nearby, and you want them to know about water quality parameters as well as some basic aquatic plant biology, like photosynthesis and respiration. Start with one thing to observe that you want students to know about, say measuring dissolved oxygen as one of the water quality parameters that they will be probing for on-site. So, that’s the first thing to do: Know what students will be studying, and pick one piece that you think is important.

Set up some sort of aquarium. I often used clear gallon jars until I discovered sun tea cannisters. They’re perfect. Add water and algae for the first phase. Now, you have a system: container, water, and algae. Systems always do something, so you can be sure yours will do something you can measure.

The next step is to set up the observations. We’re observing dissolved oxygen, so do one of two things, depending on the kind of equipment you have at your disposal. If you have a computer with an analog-to-digital interface and a dissolved oxygen meter, then set it up and program it to make readings at any interval that you want, as long as you let it run continuously for at least 24 hours. Organize it so that the computer screen shows a graph of the dissolved oxygen readings with the actual time increments on the x-axis. If you don’t have a computer interface, take dissolved oxygen readings whenever you can and add them to a continuously growing graph. Try to make at least one observation a day after the lights are out, and it’s dark in the classroom. It’s these readings that are important to have.

So, that’s how to set it up. Then, make some signs to put up around the experiment. They contain questions like: What are the parts of this experiment? Explain how this experimental setup works. What information is contained in the data? What will another 24 hours’ data look like? What might be a next step? What does the information in the graph tell you is happening in the aquarium? What kind of modifications can we make to this experiment to make it more clear?

Don’t put all the questions out at once. Just one or two a day. After a few days, add another question: What would the lab report on this experiment look like? That prompts your students to make sense of the whole thing.

You can add more parameters to observe as you go along. For instance, you can add a pH reading on the same interval as the others. There are some interesting associations in the changes to dissolved oxygen and pH readings that express themselves in a way that makes sense to some students.

Adding value to these “Works in Progress” setups is the fact that you can use them to find out about things you’re not sure about. Let’s say you don’t know a lot about photosynthesis, respiration, and pH. (It’s a fact that in the U.S., about 50% of teachers don’t have college level preparation in the content they are asked to teach. This places a real, and unfair burden on teachers. Use these works in progress to learn more yourself.) Because you’re not directly teaching these content topics in your experiment, you’ll view them from a different, and less threatening perspective. When you students ask questions, give them time to find out for themselves by consulting texts or the web. Then, keep your eyes and ears peeled on what they come up with.

You can end the experiments any time that you wish. Just end them, or engage your class in discussion and followup. That’s the nice thing about them. They place no obligation on you, yet they provide wonderful opportunities for student learning.

Almost any topic can be illustrated with a works in progress experiment. For instance, plant transpiration is one that most teachers and students don’t know much about, yet is very important. Think about this: when plants leaf-out in the spring, they draw water from the ground for photosynthesis, enough to reduce the depth of a stream by 50%. That’s a lot of pumping, and transpiration is part of the pumping system.

Hook up a tube to the cut stem of a green plant, and attach the other end to a pressure sensor. Use a timer to control a lamp, set it for two hours’ light at night, and make sure it is obvious to students when the light is on, and when it is off. Again, graph the data, add provocative questions, and rest assured that students will learn. And, you don’t have to do any prep except for the set up and writing out the questions.

So, with little class time devoted to teaching, your students have formulated a question, articulated an experimental design to answer the question, observed, analyzed, and interpreted data, and formulated a conclusion. Not only that, they have assessed the experiment and posited next steps. If you post information on how the dissolved oxygen probe works and what dissolved oxygen levels are healthy in your stream, they’ll be ready for dissolved oxygen observations on-site. That’s a lot of autonomous learning.

If you use works in progress experiments regularly, you’ll enhance your science curriculum and reap the benefits. I used to add this to essay questions on tests: “Feel free to use what you might have observed in the _____ experiment to answer this question.” A bonus for spending a little time before or after class.

There are any number of experiments that can be set up and left running for students to kibbitz. The secret is to start with just one, try it, see if you like it. Next year, you can add another. Or, if the first one works well for you, and you think of another you’d like to try, go for it. The human brain is a well-organized learning machine. It works autonomously, if we let it. Should you do a few of these works in progress, you’ll gain some insights into student learning that you can get no other way. You sneak up on them, and they learn. Because that’s how we’re built.

If you are thinking of using a works in progress, and would like a sounding board, feel free to e-mail me at

Jim and Dryas Martin
604 E. 28th St.
Vancouver, WA 98663
(360) 696-9844