What's It Like Where You Live
by Bob Coulter
Studies which compare habitats near your schoolyard to distant places offer your class opportunities to bridge the often troublesome gap between first-hand experience and on-line learning. In the process, essential science, math, and geography concepts will be learned.
An important first step in investigating natural communities is to understand what lives near you. Every time you step outside, you are surrounded with living things. Animals, in particular, can be hard to find but with some good detective work youll be able to discover signs of things that you cant observe directly. For example, you can look for tracks in mud, scat, or chewed leaves and twigs to see which animals are working in your neighborhood while you are not watching. Investing time in developing a deep understanding of the local habitat and ecosystems is an essential part of everyones education.
To gain a full understanding of your local habitat, or an ecosystem that you have defined, youll want to go further, however, toward making comparisons between local observations and what can be found elsewhere. Pursuing these investigations is facilitated considerably through the use of a variety of technologies.
Documenting seasonal and annual changes
In temperate areas (where the weather changes a lot from season to season), you may see dramatic changes as leaves change color and drop from trees each fall, with new leaves developing in the spring. Also, many animals will migrate with the change in seasons. Wherever you live, youll want to check your area regularly to see what is different. These changes can be documented readily if you have access to a digital or film camera.
Photos of trees or flowers taken at regular time intervals, or photos of migratory birds appearing at your classroom feeders give a time sequence that can be correlated with the natural history of your community.
To understand your local habitat well, be sure to notice the living conditions. In particular, abiotic (or non-living) factors such as average temperature and precipitation will help to determine what can live in your area. This data can be measured readily at your school site with a thermometer and a rain gauge, and graphed either by hand or by using a variety of data analysis software. There are benefits to either approach.
Once you know the temperature and precipitation in your community you will have an important piece in the puzzle of understanding your local habitat. Instead of just taking what is observed as a given, students can be led to see how the plants and animals in your community have adaptations that favor survival in that location. For example, plants in northern regions will need capacities different from those found in a hot desert ecosystem. Within your community, comparisons of microclimates can be conducted using methods similar to those described above.
Comparing habitats near and far Once your students have developed a strong understanding of local conditions, they are ready to compare those findings with distant locations. In these investigations, the strength of understanding developed in the local field studies will play a critically important role in determining how well you can investigate distant habitats. As you might expect, different conditions favor the survival of different species of plants and animals. A cactus plant in Arizonaequipped to retain the limited amount of water available to itwould have difficulty surviving in the rain-drenched forests of the pacific northwest. Similarly, a large oak tree that is very dependent on water would not have its needs met in the comparatively dry western plains.
There are a number of technology resources available to investigate how habitats in distant places differ from yours. To compare temperature and precipitation data from different regions, students can collect data from online resources or the weather section of your local newspaper. For example, this graph compares the temperatures in January, 2002 for Miami, Florida and Duluth, Minnesota. As you can see, there is quite a difference!
From the graph, you can have students make predictions as to the types of plants and animals that can be found in each city. The palm trees of south Florida are quite different from the conifers in northern Minnesota. Having made this observation, students can start to investigate how these differences favor survival in a particular area. Now the basic concepts they learned in their field work take on greater significance. Links between abiotic conditions (such as temperature and precipitation) and the types of species found in an area become much more real to students as they see how this interaction plays out in near and far.
Some web sites provide data for the current year as well as data for the normal temperature in that community each day. One is http://www.accuweather.com. This resource enables students to make the important distinction between weather (the current conditions) and climate (the conditions recorded over a long period of time). Any one year may experience slightly different conditions, but over time, temperature and precipitation in an area will average out to predictable values. By graphing this years data in comparison to normal conditions, students can be guided to reflect on how plants and animals might be affected by current conditions. This can be observed in ordinary phenomena such as a brown lawn during a dry spell, or in more spectacular events such as forest fires in a drought-stricken area or the bloom of wildflowers in the desert after a rainy period.
Achieving a broader context online
A strong understanding of distant habitats cannot rest solely on weather and climate data. A number of online resources help students to observe life in other eco-regions. These include the Whats It Like Where You Live? web site maintained by the Missouri Botanical Garden found at http://mbgnet.mobot.org and the Tour of Biomes developed by NASA as part of its Classroom of the Future initiative at http://www.cotf.edu/ete/modules/msese/earthsysflr/biomes.html. Each offers information, photos, and web links supporting students learning about terrestrial biomes (ecologically distinct regions of the earth). This information can be used to provide a broader context not only to your local habitat but others around the world.
Students can further their ability to analyze biomes by using NASAs Earth Observatory pages devoted to biomes,. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Laboratory/Biome/These pages pose challenges to students as they apply their understanding of how temperature and precipitation are characteristic of a region (The Great Graph Match) and how these factors affect how a plant can grow (To Plant or Not to Plant?). These activities provide an effective tool to integrate the understandings of the natural world developed through the fieldwork and online research described here. As your students become experts, another site worth investigating is the Degree Confluence Project at . http://www.confluence.org This site is ideal for students with some experience analyzing habitats, as it provides images taken by people documenting conditions at each confluence of a full (integer) degree of latitude and longitude. By locating sites in different parts of the world and drawing comparisons between observed conditions, students can further synthesize their understanding of how habitats vary and are similar around the world.
In the end, the connection from local to global habitats is strengthened as students see how their immediate area has many noteworthy and distinct features, but that the world is filled with many other equally interesting places to explore and conserve.
©Synergy Learning International, Inc., 2002, All Rights Reserved.
- Bob Coulter is director of Mapping the Environment, a program at the Missouri Botanical Garden's Litzsinger Road Ecology Center that supports teachers' efforts to enhance their science curriculum through the use of the Internet and geographic information system (GIS) software. Previously, Bob taught elementary grades for 12 years.