Are you a middle school science teacher struggling to engage students with a biodiversity curriculum? Curious about incorporating Next Generation Science Standards while joining a joyful movement? If so, then this article is for you.
*Article written by Janneke Petersen. If you’d like to feature an original article on our blog, please reach out to our content editor at [email protected].
Middle school science teachers need a curriculum for place-based education
As a middle school science teacher, I had an ongoing problem: I wanted to involve my students in place-based, real-world projects and empower them to tackle huge problems like biodiversity loss. As a teacher, I also needed to meet the high expectations of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
“How do I empower my students,” I wondered, “during our ecosystem unit with studies that are place-based?”
I wanted students to fall in love with the plants and animals of our bioregion, not only with ecosystems halfway around the world. I also wanted students to be engaged, challenged, and excited about what we were learning. But I searched (and searched) and still could not find place-based ecosystem units that embedded real-life projects.
There were some half-baked ideas, but no complete units that offered a clear, detailed road map and provided the materials.
Symbiotic Schoolyard Unit combines biodiversity curriculum with habitat restoration
Then I discovered native plants and habitat restoration through volunteering at a local park and reading Doug Tallamy’s book, Nature’s Best Hope. A light bulb turned on. What if my students could carry out a restoration project in our own schoolyard, as a part of my ecosystem unit? What if my students and I could restore our own schoolyard, increase local biodiversity, and learn about ecosystem restoration along the way? That was the seed of the idea that sent me on a long journey developing Symbiotic Schoolyard.
The Symbiotic Schoolyard Unit includes everything you need to teach. It has been through years of iterative design and informed by feedback from educators who reviewed it and pilot teachers who tried it themselves. The driving question and challenge for this unit is straightforward: How can we, as student restoration ecologists, increase the biodiversity of our schoolyard?
Through hands-on investigations, modeling, and activities, students learn that native plant communities form the foundation of complex food webs. Planting a variety of native plants in their schoolyard will help increase biodiversity by restoring complex food webs.
As a teacher, you know that students will be planting a variety of native plants to increase biodiversity but withhold this latter point. It’s more exciting and impactful for students when they figure this out themselves, lesson by lesson and the teacher guide fully explains this approach too.
5 Reasons to Restore Native Habitat in Your Schoolyard
There are so many good reasons to restore habitat in your schoolyard, beyond providing an exciting project for your ecosystem unit.
Here are five points to consider, which you can use as points to bring up with your education or admin team.
1. Green space is good for mental and physical health.
2. Campus beautification projects can help lift school spirit.
3. You are nurturing a future outdoor “living classroom” that staff can use.
4. Students who don’t often thrive in conventional classroom activities have a chance to thrive in this short and long-term project.
5. This pocket of native plants will attract native butterflies, birds, insects, and more, establishing a diverse wildlife habitat.
Consider the above reasons as stepping stones you can use to help grow your team of enthusiastic supporters.
Potential Obstacles to Incorporating this biodiversity curriculum
Because this biodiversity unit is anchored in a native planting project in your schoolyard, give yourself at least two months before beginning the unit to prepare for the project. You’ll probably need more than two months to identify a restoration site in your schoolyard, get permission to restore it, and find an expert partner. Additional potential obstacles include how to acquire the funding for the native plants, irrigation, and maintenance of the space.
Symbiotic Schoolyard does require extra planning and preparation, especially in the first year. Remember: it’s worth it and I’m here to help.
Here is an excellent book I recommend to start you on the path of becoming a Symbiotic Schoolyard teacher. Pick up a copy of Nature’s Best Hope by Doug Tallamy. This book gave me an excellent scientific background and motivation to get going, and I hope it helps you too. Tallamy’s book thoroughly explains the relationship between native plants, insect populations, bird populations, and ecosystem health. He also establishes how transforming your schoolyard is a viable solution to the biodiversity crisis.
Join the Symbiotic Schoolyard Movement
Teachers like Janneke create ripples of change and we’re grateful to Janneke for her time to share her curriculum and passion with us. To learn more, visit SymbioticSchoolyard.org or email Janneke here.
Janneke Petersen is a middle school science educator in Washington State. She supports middle school science teachers across the country in restoring biodiversity to their schoolyards as a part of their science curriculum. She has 12 years of experience as a formal and non-formal educator.