Bringing the outside In: Learning Ecology through the Study of Native Plants

By Sadler, Kim Cleary; Cliche, Cindy et al. | Science and Children, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Bringing the outside In: Learning Ecology through the Study of Native Plants


Sadler, Kim Cleary, Cliche, Cindy, Lasater, Marrie, Science and Children


Every ecosystem in the world has unique and interesting features that foster appreciation about the environment. To address thinking globally but acting locally, consider engaging your students in deep understanding about a local ecosystem. We have enjoyed teaching about the tropical rain forest, Antarctica, and other faraway places, but one of the most transformative learning experiences for our students has been using the local environment to study native plant species. Although it is important for students to learn about global ecosystems to develop understanding about the Earth, this sometimes means they know more about distant ecosystems than the environment in which they live. Creating a sense of awe and wonder using the local environment has provided our students with an ecological knowledge about where they live and given them a sense of stewardship about their local environment (Beames, Higgins, and Nicol 2012). We have taught at two elementary schools using this approach with second- and fifth-grade classes and in both schools have been able to transform part of the school yard into native habitat. As you read our story, adapt what we did to your local ecology by thinking of native plant species that occur and thrive in ecosystems in your area.

Using Our Natural Environment

Our students learn about ecosystem interactions, energy, and dynamics through a limestone cedar glade, which can be best described as pockets of flat rocky land surrounded by red cedars. The red cedar trees grow in deep cracks in the limestone. Organisms unique to an area are known as endemic species and limestone cedar glades have more than 23 endemic plants. This large number of rare plants meant that each student or student partners in a class could "adopt" a plant to study and become a specialist on that plant. When students see a plant we studied during class out in the field, they often exclaim, "There's Caleb's Missouri Evening Primrose plant!" Learning about native plants in this way creates positive associations between a specific plant and a classmate; it is amazing to observe how many species students are able to learn (and remember years later) using this strategy.

Because it was difficult to manage multiple field trips to the glades, it occurred to us that student learning would be maximized if we brought the glades to the school. Establishing a native plant garden takes several years (and is a work in progress) but we attribute success to the fact that we used plants adapted to local environmental conditions. Teaching about native plants by having representative plants on the school grounds, provided a basis for deeper science understanding about not only the plants but the ecosystem in which they thrive.

After transferring to teach at a second elementary school, an opportunity to bring a cedar glade to this school developed again when a bare spot of land was converted into an outdoor learning center. Two inspired fourth- and fifth-grade teachers mobilized community resources and teachers at every grade level to transform this unused space into something truly valuable. Using resources suggested by Mayes (2011), the outdoor learning center developed gardens through free labor and support from parents, Eagle Scout projects, the local university, Master Gardeners, and several grants.

Learning Opportunities Build Understanding

Once the native plant garden is established, it is time to use it! Each year, when planning the cedar glade lessons and activities, we examine the math, science, and ELA standards. With the implementation of NGSS, changes were made in the curriculum to meet those standards and guide the instruction. A planning template has been created to assist you in thinking about how to incorporate learning about native plants in your classroom (see NSTA Connection).

Lessons are designed to develop conceptual understanding about the cedar glade ecosystem, soil depth, plant structure, plant function, plant life cycle, pollinators, and plant conservation (Sadler et al. …

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