Toxins 5E Lab

Two important topics in APES are combined for this 5E–Serial dilution Lab and LC50 Lab. The lab papers needed for this lab can be found on these google doc links.
Engage, Explore, Explain
Elaborate, Evaluate
How Toxic is Toxic
LD50 of Substances

Engage: Flint, Michigan

This Engage is a short case study about lead exposure for students. Most students have heard of Flint, Michigan and its water quality problems so this adds to previous knowledge (a key component of Engage). The video piques their interest and then we discuss our own drinking water and how this problem would not occur here, because we are a newer community that does not have lead pipes. We also discuss how older cities with lead pipes can prevent lead leaching by using an additive in the water. Click to read this article explaining more about how lead gets into drinking water.

Explore: Serial Dilution

Students in AP® Environmental Science need to understand how toxins can still be prevalent in very small amounts. The best way to do this is for students to do a serial dilution. (Note: This activity is courtesy of Dan Hyke from the APSI, I attended in 2006. I have altered it and combined with LD-50 for this 5E)

Materials needed for serial dilution

As students walk through the procedure, fill in their data charts and answer the guiding questions, they hopefully will come up with the concept on their own–toxins can still be present even in very small amounts such as parts per million (ppm), parts per billion (ppb) and parts per trillion (ppt). Materials needed are: (Click on an underlined item for a link to the product)

  • Well plate
  • Plastic Pipet
  • Beaker for tap water
  • Toothpicks
  • Dropper bottle of a dye/stain/coloring such as a Food Grade Dye like FD&C Red Dye #40 Do not use regular food coloring as it dilutes much too quickly

Students use 3-4 drops of the red dye solution in the first well.  Then they fill the other wells with 9 drops of tap water. After that, they drop one drop from the previous well and stir.

Well Tray at the end of the lab

Students are often concerned when their solution is clear by well 7. I tell them that’s normal and they are to still make the transfers. They need to move the molecules in order to understand the point of the lab.

Students creatively identify shades of red and pink and learn about ppm, ppb, and ppt on their data sheet. Some students will need help with these circles. I tell them that “their brains will hurt” today.

Sample serial dilution data
Students using an online thesaurus to get creative on shades of red

Explain: Student Sense-Making

In a good 5E, students should be able to develop the concept you want them to on their own. Developing good guiding questions is your job as the teacher to lead them to it.  For this lab, students should make a CLAIM or a STATEMENT that “Substances can be in water even if you cannot see it, smell it or taste it.

Elaborate: LC50 Lab

We use the results from the salinization Lab to do LC-50. Students bring their salinization labs back to class and we collect class data. (Students save all work in their APES binder) This time, however, we want “opposite” data–the number of seeds that DIED, instead of the number that germinated.

Students fill in the chart for their group’s data and then all students copy class data. From there, using a document camera or on the board, teach students how to find the LC-50 by drawing a line from 50% on the y axis to where it hits the dose-response curve and then down to the x axis. Read the concentration that kills 50% of seeds. If you need help with this, I made this video for absent kids that may help you understand how to do this lab:


This 5E does not have its own Evaluate–rather students are assessed for these skills and knowledge on their next exam.

* AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse this site.

Trees, Forestry and Deforestation 5E

Take students outside to measure trees, discover ecosystem services of trees and forests, develop math skills, deforestation and sustainable forestry in the “I Love Trees 5E” Lab. If you are lucky enough to teach at a school next to a forested area, take the kids there. If not, trees on the school grounds, park or other area work just as well.

Student using a homemade clinometer to measure the height of a tree at school

Teacher Preparation

For this 5E, you need to make clinometers using cardboard, string/yard, a piece of metal (anything with a little weight) and a straw. You can have students make the clinometers if you would like, but I had my student lab assistant make 10 clinometers for me to save class time. They can be reused over and over. I made one clinometer for each group of 4 students.

Class set of clinometers that can be reused over and over

You also need two sewing tape-measures for each group of students and a tree map. I identified the trees ahead of time in the study area and googled their density. You could teach students how to identify trees using the iNaturalist app or a field guide if you want.

Materials for 1 group of students. One clinometer, two tape measures, and a tree map of the school grounds


An engage section of a 5E should be very short. For this 5E, I asked kids about the biggest tree they’ve ever seen. I find that personal questions where kids can share with their elbow partner and the rest of the class is very engaging. Another part of the Engage sections is review the photosynthesis equation–a good 5E builds on previous knowledge.

I show my own pictures with large trees (like Sequoias or Redwoods at the National Parks or large oak trees in town). Students like to see their teacher’s pictures.

This picture was taken 10 years ago in Sequoia National Park. My children are now older and one is in my APES class. Kids LOVE to see this.

Explore #1

Students head outside to take data in this Explore. Its helpful to demonstrate how to use the clinometer before heading outside. You or your students will choose a tree and measure the tree height using a homemade clinometer. They will also measure the tree circumference using the measuring tapes, the distance the tree to a building and the condition of the tree. After measurements, students will do math calculations using given formulas to help them determine the height, diameter, volume and mass (using the density), and the carbon sequestered by the tree.

Students hold the clinometer with the plumb line straight down and then walk forward or backwards until they can see through the straw to the top of the tree.
Students measure the circumference of the tree using measuring tapes and then use a formula to find the diameter.
Students use two measuring tapes to measure the distance from the tree to the student using the clinometer. The easiest way to do this is to “leapfrog” two tapes as shown above.

Explore #2

Students head back to class to enter their tree’s data on iTreeTools. 
Data chart for the results from iTree is below:

Total benefits for this year $
Carbon Dioxide Sequestered $
Annual CO2 equivalent of carbon kg
Storm Water runoff avoided $
Air Pollution Removed each year $
Carbon monoxide removed g
Ozone removed g
Nitrogen Dioxide removed g
Sulfur dioxide removed g
Particulate matter < 2.5 microns removed g
CO2 Stored to date $
Life CO2 equivalent of carbon kg

Explain: Student-Sense-Making

Students work through a series of questions to help them discover the scientific concept on their own. Sample questions:

  1. What are the $ benefits of your tree? _________________
  2. Review: What is the photosynthesis equation:
  3. Draw a picture of the tree and show how molecules are moving
  4. Where does the C from CO2 end up?
  5. Think about it: How does cutting down trees for lumber and paper affect atmospheric carbon?
  6. Think about it: How does cutting down trees and burning them affect atmospheric carbon?
  7. Many species of trees increase in density, as they get older. How does this affect carbon sequestration? (Hint, the mass increases also).
Sample drawing for #3 above. The idea is for students to understand that carbon creates biomass in trees and other producers.

These and other questions help students discover the scientific concept/s and make a CLAIM. This is the place for formative assessment. Walk around and check student claims. Make sure they understand what you want them to understand.

Question :: How can how trees provide ecosystem services regarding climate
change, air pollution and water pollution:
Claim :: (Complete sentence answer to the question above.—Make sure you write
about ALL THREE ecosystem services)    

Explain: New Understandings and Vocabulary

This is the place for formal science instruction. in this E, students will watch a series of 3 mini videos that describe more ecosystem services of trees and why tree-sitters do what they do. Students record more ecosystem services of trees on their lab report. Its best to do this portion as a class so that you can stop and discuss. However, it can be done at home, if needed, to save time. One video is a lovely TedTalk about trees.


In this section, students learn about deforestation and then sustainable forest solutions. Students will watch a series of 6 mini videos and fill in a T-chart with facts about deforestation and facts about sustainable forestry. Two sample videos are:

While there are some counter-arguments to sustainable forestry, students need to understand some solutions for exams. You can discuss places you agree or disagree with sustainable forestry.


The evaluate section of this 5E is unique, engaging and fairly easy to grade. Students will fill in the branches of the tree drawing with 5 ecosystem services:

Students then describe problems with deforestation next to the stump:

And methods of sustainable forestry next to this drawing:

The Evaluate section can be done individually or with a partner–with or without notes. You decide which is best for your students.

Open Access Picture credits:

Island BioGeography Theory 5E Lab

Students pour beans through funnels in this version of Island Biogeography

The Theory of Island Biogeography is a nice 5E lab using inexpensive materials (funnels, beans and poster paper) that not only teaches students an important concept, but also helps develop higher level thinking skills.

The Theory of Island Biogeography states that larger islands closer to the mainland have higher biodiversity than smaller islands further from the mainland. This theory is also applied to isolated habitats on land. You can read about this concept on this document and can share with students.

The basic concept of this lab is not complicated for students, but applying it to preserving biodiversity on continents or even thier own community can be counter-intuitive. Students have difficulty realizing that we have isolated habitats on land and that preserving pockets of habitat that are larger and closer together is the best for biodiversity.

The 5E Lab

This Island Biogeography Theory 5E Lab is inquiry-based to help students discover the concept on their own and develop critical thinking skills to make real-life applications.
Engage: Students discuss how animals or plants migrate to islands.
Explore: Students drop beans through funnels onto a poster multiple times and count the species that land on each island. They do some math to help them calculate averages per island.

Explain: Students make sense of their data using guiding questions and make a claim about the scientific concept–this is a great place for formative assessment. Then, they read a passage explaining the theory in formal academic and scientific vocabulary.
Elaborate: Students apply this knowledge to isolated pockets of land in their community using Google Earth–its best to do this as a whole class so that you can help students find pockets of habitat. This is something that most students have never realized, but when they do, its a great “aha” moment.
They then apply this knowledge to our National Parks. Using a map of the National Parks, they are asked which parks would have the most biodiversity using this theory and then where they would create a new park. Many students want to put a new park in a state (like Kansas) that doesn’t have any national parks. This is incorrect according to this theory. A large park next to an existing large park is the best solution according to this theory.

Evaluate:  Students write a chunk paragraph addressing the following questions. They are to base their argument using evidence from this lab.

  • What do you observe in your town about habitat fragmentation?  What kind of wildlife would be the most affected?
  • How could we use this concept when we develop urban planning? How should development occur to preserve the most species?

Finishing and Assessing EcoColumns

Finishing EcoColumns is a sad, but necessary part of EcoColumns. Students become very attached to their ecocolumns, but they start to degrade after about 6-8 weeks. Plants begin to run out of space and nutrients and will die off and while the fish do eat elodea and survive the whole time (mostly), they are omnivores (we use mostly Gambusia) and prefer to go back into the tank and eat regular fish food with some protein.

Creating graphs, analyzing data, and taking an ecocolumn test are all part of finishing ecocolumns. A document for students can be found here.


My students graph two items of data from their spreadsheets. A sample spreadsheet can be found here.  In their groups of 4, each student must graph two DIFFERENT items of data.

To graph, I allow students to choose to either hand-graph or computer-graph. Both ways are valuable. Sometimes, I will teach students to graph using Google Sheets, but this takes a class day for instruction. Other years, I will save that day by instructing kids to watch a YouTube tutorial on how to graph using Google Sheets or to just use the help function on sheets–its pretty easy now with Sheets upgrades. Many times, students will teach other students how to do it.

Hand graphing is also valuable, because kids can better read a graph on a test or in their textbooks, if they’ve spent time doing it by hand.  The AP® Exam sometimes has kids hand-drawn a graph on FRQs and it always has multiple choice questions with graphs.

Sample student graph using google sheets

Group Data Analysis

The next part of finishing ecocolumns is for students to analyze data. I provide several questions for students to discuss and answer in their groups. I give them choices for the questions as I really want them to discuss in-depth the science of what happened in their ecocolumn. My students take notes several times about the science of ecocolumns and they need to refer to their notes when answering the questions.

Students choose 2 questions to answer regarding their soil and water quality data, 2 questions about observations, adjustments, and error. In addition, they must also develop 5 follow-up questions. This is an important skill for students-to develop good questions and is NGSS Science and Engineering Practice #1. It is also AP® Science Practice #3.

Students must film the answers to their data analysis on Flipgrid.

EcoColumns on Flipgrid

The next part of finishing ecocolumns is to film on flipgrip. I’ve used flipgrid the past two years for this and really like the results. Kids get to practice their speaking skills (a common core practice), all students speak equally and there are no slackers, and students get to use props and visuals. And…I get to avoid reading more lab reports!

I give students about 90 minutes (over two days) to discuss, plan and film their flipgrid. I let them spread out so its not too noisy (I have good kids which behave). Some students film outside (we are in southern California),  some in the lab and some in my classroom.

Students preparing to film (my son is in the middle)

Students filming using the camera on a chromebook.

Students with their ecocolumn discussing before they film

Here are a couple of links to EcoColumn Flipgrids. I had permission to share on my syllabus and I also checked again with the students before I shared these videos.

Disposing EcoColumns

The next part of finishing ecocolumns is disposal. First, students put their fish back in my tanks. Some of my fish have been through multiple ecocolumns!

Fish for aquatic chambers. Gambusia (mosquito fish) are my favorite and I keep them year-round in 3 aquariums.

Next, students dump the contents of all 3 chambers in an designated natural area on campus and place the plastic chambers in bags to be recycled. We DO NOT reuse chambers for several reasons. First, I don’t have the storage area in my lab, second, they plastic typically has rips and several need duct tape after many weeks. Third, the kids really like cutting and making ecocolumns each year.

Ecocolumn basic supplies for building aren’t expensive. Ecocolumns can be successfully done without spending a lot of your science funds.

EcoColumn Test

The last part of finishing ecocolumns is a rather difficult multiple choice test at the end of the ecocolumns. This test has AP caliber questions and is challenging for students. If taught correctly, ecocolumns have A LOT of science in them. Some sample questions:

  1. What prevents your fish from dying due to ammonia in its own waste?
  •       Nitrifying bacteria turns ammonia into nitrate
  •       Nitrifying bacteria turns ammonia into Nitrogen gas
  •       Bacteria used dissolved oxygen to deactivate the ammonia
  •       Nitrogen-fixing bacteria turns ammonia into nitrites
  •       Nitrogen-fixing bacteria turns nitrogen gas into ammonia

2.  Which of the following would NOT lower pH in the aquatic chamber?

  •       Dead fish
  •       Healthy elodea
  •       Decomposing elodea
  •       Cellular respiration by the fish

I do not share out this exam or any of my exams (sorry), because unfortunately some teachers post exams (for practice) on their websites and my students will find them. It takes a lot time to develop really good questions for students that are AP® caliber.

More Ecocolumn Resources

Student directions for building ecocolumns.

Everything EcoColumns

Student handout for finishing ecocolumns

AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse this site.


Binders to Collect Work

I want my students to save certain papers during the year and use later as they study for the AP®  Exam. These papers include labs, charts, handouts, some notes and other important papers. To force them to keep these papers, they are required to make an AP®  binder.

Just a note: the binder helps kids keep the papers after they’ve been graded and passed back–I don’t use binders to collect work to grade.

Requirements to Build the Binder

I require a 1 inch binder. My class doesn’t use as much paper as it did a decade ago as a lot is done virtually and we do sticky notes instead of regular notes. I tell students to reuse an old binder from last year (duct tape together as needed) as its better for the environment, saves money, and they only bring into class to grade 3 times per year. Legally, I cannot require a binder in California so alternately, students can use another organizer/folder and receive the same points. I also have old binders left behind from previous years that I empty and give to kids as needed.

My students can use whatever they’d like for daily work in my class—a folder, another binder with multiple classes, etc. The “official” APES binder only needs to come to class 3 times per year to grade.

Dividers with tabs can be purchased or made using sticky notes. Most students opt to make with sticky notes to save money.

Directions for creating the binder are given to students at the beginning of the year in a little booklet I created called the “Great APES Booklet”

Hand-made sticky notes used as tab dividers.

What goes into the Binder?

Students make a cover sheet for the APES binder with their name, period, my name as the teacher and decorations. I tell them the decorations can be printed or hand-drawn and can be of things related to the environment or of the great apes.

A student who chose a picture of an ape for their cover page.

An artistic students’ hand-drawn cover

A student who chose a political cartoon for their cover sheet

Students must also have a table of contents or AP®  binder list. I write the list on a side board and also have it on a google doc for kids to use.

Binder list or table of contents

Students use the list to number the assignments in the binder. We place items in chronological order as they’re covered during the year.

This GPP/NPP lab is item # 18 in the binder.

Grading the Binder

Students bring in their AP®  binders 3 times per year in about October, January and April.  I have 175 students in APES and if I have enough room in the lab, I will collect and grade and then give back in about a week. If space isn’t available, students peer grade and take the binders home. Here is a sample binder grading sheet. 


In March, I give students a “6 Week Study Plan”  for the AP®  Exam which emphasizes certain items in the binders. Some examples are the water quality lab, salinization lab, charts etc. These are papers which have content, science practices, or other things they need to review for the AP exam.

APES Binders force the kids to save papers that they will need later.


AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse this site.

Favorite Films for Environmental Science

Many new teachers want to know which APES films or environmental documentaries are the best. We all have different opinions, but here are some of the most commonly shown films by environmental science and AP® Environmental Science teachers.

I have links to Amazon here, but you should check if the film streams online for free first. I don’t support illegal postings of videos, but on occasion, a PBS video streams for free from their site or another site. Or, some teachers can show Netflix at school and many of these stream there.

Please note: No one will show all of these films. They are just suggestions. In fact, over the 12 years of teaching APES, my video and documentary days have greatly declined in favor of more activities that develop higher level thinking skills. Also, kids these days prefer shorter mini-videos (a few minutes) about a topic than a longer video. And, that’s okay.


Intro to APES/Review Topics/Geology

  • NPRs Carbon Videos--These short videos review carbon from chemistry and preview climate change.
  • The original Lorax–Some teachers use as an introduction to environmental science or APES. I like to use the film in my forestry chapter.
  • NOVA: Japan’s Killer Quake–This film discusses the science of earthquakes and tsunamis.
  • The 11th Hour--This series introduces a lot of APES topics, but is rather depressing. I don’t show to kids because I prefer upbeat, hopeful films.
  • Strange Days on Planet Earth–This series is a bit old now, but introduces several APES topics. There’s a segment on wolves in Yellowstone that’s nice.
  • Merchants of Doubt–This film discusses how the media spins many scientific topics.
  • A Fierce Green Fire–A good overview to many topics covered throughout the year. Documents many historical events over the past 50 years in environmental science.


  • HHMI Gorongosa: The Guide–This free 34 minute film accompanies many wonderful ecology lessons from HHMI. It features E.O. Wilson (a well-known ecology) and a teenage boy from Africa.
  • PBS Gorongosa–This 6 hour series also in Gorongosa National Park in Africa feature many ecological topics. A good video to have for emergency sub days.
  • Cane Toads (for invasive species)–This film is a “right of passage” for APES.  Its a quirky, cult classic about cane toads in Australia. Can be found streaming on Youtube sometimes.
  • Planet Earth series–Another good one to have for sub days.

Image result for cane toads meme

Human Population

  • NOVA World in the Balance–An old, but still relevant film. It is the favorite film for human population in APES.
  • Don’t Panic: Gapminder–I have not previewed this film, but have heard that other APES teachers show it. This is the same video as “Overpopulation by Hans Rosling”

Soil and Agriculture

  • Dirt, the Movie –A good film discusses the benefits and structure of soil. I show only the first half of the film to save time.
  • King Corn–I like this film, because it shows how farming is done with plowing, fertilizers, pesticides, subsidies etc.
  • Food Inc.–This film discusses the problems with modern, industrial farming. It is anti-GMO and there are some rebuttals to the film online. Some social studies, English, and health classes also show this film.
  • Fresh–a “newer” film with an upbeat message about the problems and solutions of food production.
  • Secrets of Plant Genomes, Revealed–Free and made for teens by the NSF. A bit corny, but good info about the science of GMOs. Tell kids that its corny before watching and they will enjoy it even more.
  • More Than Honey–Documents the importance of bees and the devastating loss of bees due to CCD (colony collapse disorder).
  • Symphony of the Soil–a fascinating look at the complexity of soil.


  • Last Call at the Oasis–A film about water depletion.
  • Hurricane on the Bayou–A favorite film with great jazz music. Originally an IMAX movie that was going to be about wetlands and ended up being about Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  Discusses the science of wetlands preservation and hurricanes.
  • Frontline: Poisoned Waters–A good film about water pollution. You could show all or just parts of the film.
  • Tapped–This film discusses the environmental cost of bottled water along with social justice issues. An inspiring film for kids.
  • Watershed: Exploring a New Water Ethic for the West–This film discusses the competing interested for Colorado River Water
  • Dam Nation--This film discusses dam building, and the case for removing some dams to allow more salmon spawning.



  • American Experience Silent Spring–This film discusses Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and DDT.  A bit long for a minor topic.
  • Frontline: Fooling with Nature–discusses endocrine disruptors. Out of print and difficult to find, however. If you can find a copy, its a good film to show. (Check your public library)
  • Erin Brokovich–Be aware that its rated R and has profanity, but it features illegal toxic waste disposal, cancer, and environmental justice. You may or may not be allowed to show at your school.
  • A Civil Action–This movie starring John Travolta is similar to Erin Brokovich and dramatizes the fight again illegal toxic waste dumping.
  • Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain–A documentary about the Bhopal, India and the terrible environmental disaster there.

Air Pollution

Climate Change

  • Before the Flood–A new climate change film that is popular in APES. It used to stream for free, but now there is a charge.
  • NOVA Decoding the Weather Machine–A great new climate change video that discusses all the science. As of 9/2018, PBS has it for free.
  • NOVA Power Surge–An upbeat climate change video with solutions. This is my favorite, because the tone is full of hope.
  • Carbon Nation–A climate change solution video that doesn’t care if you don’t believe in climate change. Upbeat and also full of hope.
  • NPRs Carbon Videos–A fun, 5 part mini-video series about carbon and climate change.
  • Inconvenient Truth–one of the original climate change films, but old now and some kids are turned off by a politician. There are better films out now. I have not previewed the sequel: Truth to Power. 
  • Chasing Ice–A mesmerizing film that follows a time-lapse photographer as he documents glacier recession and ice sheet melting over the past decade. There is a shorter TedTalk by the photographer (James Balog) available too.

Biodiversity and Conservation Biology

  • Saving Otter 501–One of my favorite videos all year. Kids love it. Features the conservation efforts to save the Southern Sea Otter by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.
  • Racing Extinction–This is a wonderful new film that inspires kids to save wildlife.
  • NOVA Wild Ways–This new film by NOVA features wildlife corridors as a way to protect species. Kids enjoy this film.
  • Star Trek Trouble with Tribbles–A fun episode about an invasive species in space!
  • National Parks, America’s Best Idea–Documentary series by Ken Burns. This is a wonderful series, but is a little slow for students and goes into a lot more detail than they need.

Forestry and Land Use

  • NOVA Wild Ways–see description above
  • The Original Lorax–usually streams somewhere on Youtube. You can also purchase a copy fairly inexpensively.
  • Nature: Survivors of the Fire Storm–Discusses fire ecology in Australia. Kids enjoy watching this film, because it shows many Australian animals at a rescue center.
  • The Story of Yosemite--This film re-enacts the historical meeting between Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir and how that led to more National Parks and land preservation.


  • Switch–This film is free for educators by request. Many teachers show several small segments about energy sources from this film, if they don’t have time for the whole thing.
  • NOVA Treasures of the Earth: Power–my favorite new energy video that discusses fossil fuels, electricity and alternatives.
  • NOVA Saved by the Sun–a nice video about solar energy.
  • Oil on Ice–a documentary about the Arctic National Wildlife Sanctuary. A bit long for a minor topic.

Solid Waste

  • Dive–I have not seen it, but a colleague said that his kids like this film about dumpster diving.
  • The Works: Garbage–Sadly out of print and difficult to find online. Features landfills and hazardous waste.
  • Toy Story 3–I show the end of the movie from the landfill and incineration scene to the end.  The kids cry, because they soon will leave for college (just like Andy does in the movie).
  • EPA videos–Several small free videos made by the EPA about hazardous waste cleanup.
  • Wasted-A film about the problem of food waste. One of the “newer” topics in APES and has been in the news recently.
  • Bag It! –A fim about plastic use, trying to go plastic-free and plastic pollution.


  • The Last Mountain–This film shows mountaintop removal. The most widely used video for this topic by APES teachers and is impacting.
  • Modern Marvels–This series has several episodes about mining and quarries that can be used in APES.
  • 30 Days: Season 3: Working in a Coal Mine–This film shows students what coal mining is like. Not a lot of science in it,  but interesting as a visual.


  • Suburbia and the End of Oil–This is an interesting video about how suburbs were created and some solutions for future oil scarcity. A bit outdated, however, as we have found new sources of petroleum since this film was made. I used to show, but no longer have the time.
  • Filthy Cities–documentary series discusses problems with urbanization and touches on many other APES topics such as waste management, sewage, and disease.

Environmental Economics and Law

  • Story of Stuff–A short film discussing the environmental issues around globalization, commercialism and planned obsolescence. This film has some pushback from conservative groups.
  • Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt–Free short video series that shows how globalization and manufacturing work. Non-judgmental–just presents how it all works.

Video Series

  • Bozeman Science–Good for review, not for initial learning of material, because it goes fast and has a lot of content. I assign as homework on Edpuzzle the night before an exam.
  • TedEd: Environment–Some good videos to supplement lecture or labs.

AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse this site.





Getting to Know Your Students

A “Getting to know you” survey or questionnaire the first week of school is not a new idea. Used strategically, however, it is an essential tool to quickly learn about your students even before you’ve memorized all their names. I use Google Forms for instant results that I can quickly scan for specific items.

Computer Access

This is the most important item I want to learn right away in a flipped classroom.  Do my students all have internet access through a smart phone or computer?  Many students are embarrassed to come talk with me if they don’t have internet at home, but they will answer questions on a google form about their access. Making sure all kids have access and providing access if they don’t is crucial.

I scan the spreadsheet results to quickly find the kids without internet access. The highlighted student does not have a computer at home, but does have a SMART phone. This is fine as I make sure all my homework can be done on a phone.

Once I find students without computers or internet,  I can go to these students privately and find an individualized solution with them depending on their resources. These solutions can include:

  • Providing a flash drive with video lectures for kids with a computer, but no internet at home.
  • Teaching them how to download lecture videos on their phones using the school’s WiFi if they don’t have internet at home.
  • Providing a borrowed device such as donated old tablet or phone with video lectures downloaded on them.

First Time AP and How Many APs

This is an important snapshot for me to take of my classes as a whole and for individual periods and students. Every year its different and these questions give me an idea of how many kids will need more scaffolding in learning how to do well in an AP class.

2018 results. I typically have about 50-50, but this year, about 2/3 have taken AP before.

Another good snapshot of my classes to inform me of how many kids are juggling a lot of APs and those that are “trying out” only one AP.

Its also helpful to look at the results by period. I typically have one period where a lot of kids are “1st timers” and then another period where they’ve all taken 10th grade AP Euro and are now taking 3 or 4 APs.  I can approach instruction for each period differently.

Preferred Name

Some kids are shy and won’t tell you their nickname or preferred name when you call roll on the first day. Research shows that names are important for student achievement and I want to get it right.

Extra Curricular and Sports

I want to know which kids are in which activity for several reasons:

  1. Helps me make a personal connection with kids–I want to ask them about their team or band or theater group etc.
  2. Let me know of a coach or leader I can contact with any questions or concerns.
  3. Gives me a heads-up on who will have to leave early for matches, competition, games, choir tour, band tour etc.

Sample results

Some more great personal questions that you can ask are found on Norm Herr’s website.

And Anything Else…

This is another important items. I’ve had kids tell me about health problems that keep them out of class often, or their career aspirations, or that they are shy or……

For example, if I have a student who writes down special need or a health problem, I can privately ask them what I can do to help. Just that question means so much to the student.

Or, for shy students, I can talk with them about one of the items they mentioned–like building a computer. This helps bring them out of their shell a little.

Anything to understand our students better help them learn, but also demonstrates caring and compassion and creates a better community.

APES Math Strategy That Really Works

The million dollar question in AP® is “How can I help struggling students while not boring or giving busy work to high achieving students?” This is especially true for math concepts in science courses where students are enrolled with differing math skills and strengths. How can teachers help ALL students with APES math?

I’ve been trying different ways to approach APES math for 12 years. Last year, I tried something new–a math diagnostic and then individualized, differentiated math review and practice.  The verdict? According to my instructional planning report from the CB……it worked!

(To learn about the types of math needed in AP Environmental Science click here. )

Math Diagnostic

The first thing I did was develop an APES math diagnostic that students took at the beginning of the year covering the types of math they should have already learned. Some students didn’t remember how to solve some or all of the topics, while others didn’t remember how to solve without a calculator. You can find the diagnostic I developed here.

Math Review Diagnostic for AP Environmental Science

The diagnostic took 60-90 minutes for students to complete. When finished, they self-graded with the solution key and circled the topics on their answer sheet that they believed they needed to review. This allowed them to take ownership of their learning. I told them that I would look over them and circle any other areas they needed to work on, but for the most part, they were pretty honest. They knew they needed to know how to do the APES math for their own exam grades and wanted the practice.

There are special APES math topics that we learn during the year (population math, energy math and productivity, for example) and these are not part of this diagnostic. I teach those math topics differently–as they come up in certain chapters.

After students have self-corrected and indicated their weaknesses, I entered the topics they needed practice on a spreadsheet and used the spreadsheet to assign review papers to them individually.

Update: Shelby Childress Riha uses a Google Form with her students where they can click the areas they need to review. I LOVE this and plan to use next year to save me time filling in a spreadsheet by hand.  Thanks Shelby!


Students had choices on how to approach each  APES math review paper.  They could

  1. Attempt to solve and then use a solution key to check their work.
  2. Use videos for help. I made videos of all the review sheets. They could watch me solve one or all of the problems on my Youtube Playlist. 
  3. A hybrid of the two–solve any they could without video help and then fast-forward the videos to only the problems they struggled with.

APES Math Review papers with keys.

I prepared 10 pages of review topics along with solution keys and videos. You can easily do this with your own math review papers….but a warning…it does take many hours to prep. After students were finished with the specific papers they needed to do (for some students it was all 10 math papers and for others it was only 1-2 papers), they switched to FRQ math practice. 

I rotated around the room making sure students were on task on math days. I estimate that I did about 10-12 math days in class last year (55 minute periods on a traditional schedule).  I flipped (lecture at home) which allowed this amount of time in class.

One of the amazing, awesome things about this method using videos is that I just monitored students. I did not run around to try help individual students in the period and this prevented exhaustion. The kids just opened the video for the review paper they needed and fast-forwarded to the problem they needed help with.

When Students were Finished with Review

After review papers, students practiced APES math with released FRQ #2s from each year on the AP Exam.  I assigned 2017 back through 2009–two at a time and had keys and videos for them.  I used the snipping tool on Microsoft word to cut out the non-math portions of the FRQs. I also did not assign problems previous to 2009 as the math is structured a bit differently in recent years. The math is also easier in recent years so I wanted them to start off with easier problems.

2017 key for students to use after solving APES math problems.

Some students finished all the released FRQs and were then assigned to do peer tutoring with other students who needed help with APES math.


It worked!  I am thankful, because it was HOURS of work to prepare and implement. I compared my students’ (group) mean with the global mean each year. This was the highest difference on FRQ#2 in years. My students average was 1.4 points higher than the global mean which is an increase of 56% over the global mean (Percent change!!)  Last year, I had only a 13% gain over the global mean so I am very pleased with the results.

These are results from the 2018 exam. FRQ #2 was the Wind Energy FRQ. I have marked out all other scores for confidentiality

Implementation was challenging, however. It took a lot of organization to keep track of what each student needed to do and turn in. Next year, I plan to organize better and create folders for each kid with the papers they need for the year and give them 1-2 pages at a time.

AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse this site.

Peer Grading FRQs using Google Forms and Spreadsheets by Katy Sturges

Implementing FRQ Peer Grading in the Classroom

Guest writer: Katy Sturges, APES teacher from Texas

In the summer of 2008, after completing my first year of teaching only Biology, I went to a mandatory APSI training as a requirement to teach AP® Environmental Science the following school year. As many of us do, we all bring home nuggets of information on not only the content, but on various methods of how more experienced teachers do things. I took away many nuggets that year, but the one that has evolved the most that I still implement today—almost 11 years later– is how to effectively peer grade FRQs. Before I explain my methodology, I think it is important to note the skeleton of this idea was first introduced to me by Courtney Masser Mayer— if you haven’t had the pleasure of being trained by her go sign up!! She is fabulous!

Before Test Day

For each unit my kids get a packet of corresponding released FRQs—they could get 2 FRQs or 10 FRQs- it just depends on the unit! These are due on test day through for a completion grade (they know this). I make sure they don’t plagiarize and I check to make sure they are describing when it says to describe, etc. and take off points accordingly. I have them do this so they are exposed to as many FRQs are possible. SPOILER ALERT- the answers are posted on the College Board website and the kids know this — in fact I tell them about it! This is why their daily grade FRQs are completion BUT they know one of those FRQs (or a conglomerate of them) will be on their test for bonus points. I emphasize to them to go through their packet on their own to the best of their ability, since it’s completion, and THEN look up the answers to see if they were correct and clear up misconceptions before their test. Your high level kids will attempt the FRQs on their own and then look up answers to check their work, your moderately high kids will attempt them on their own and won’t bother looking up answers, your moderately low kids will go straight to College Board and rework their answers and your low kids just won’t do it.

Anonymity is key—and fun!

My kids also answer FRQs on test day –they get a 33 MC test and one 10 point bonus FRQ to answer in about 45 minutes. I don’t curve tests, so this way they can earn some extra points from their FRQ.  All FRQs are written on colored paper that is specific to the class period (this comes in handy later during peer grading) so 1st period might write theirs on blue paper, 2nd period on green, etc. It isn’t necessary to ALWAYS make first period the same color for the entire school year because, let’s be honest, that’s one more thing to keep track of.

On the top of the MC portion of the test, right justified by their name, I have them write their “codename”. This can be ANYTHING their heart desires and can change every test if they want. On the first test, you have to remind them not to spend 10 minutes coming up with “the perfect codename” because they enjoy this part of test day the most. The only parameters I give for making their codename is it needs to be appropriate (if it’s inappropriate they don’t get any FRQ points) and if it’s going to be generic add some numbers at the end. You’d be surprised how many kids will use the codename “Panda” so remind them to be “Panda168” or something. Since the kid’s school lunch accounts are tied to their IDs at my school, I mention to avoid using ID numbers—besides, those are super boring!

Fun Fact: Apparently there used to be a cartoon called “Codename: Kids Next Door” and, you guessed it, every year I would get several kids that used “Kids Next Door” as their codename. Luckily, they were in different classes so they were separated by period/color… but I was very confused for a couple of years!

They will write their codename in three places– on their MC test by their name (as mentioned), on their colored FRQ sheet (ideally in the top right corner) and on a sign-up sheet I pass around:

This paper is the most important for the teacher- this is the easiest way to match the student’s grade/codename to the actual person. It is also colored coded with the class period. Make sure to label the top with the unit name/topic to keep your sanity later when looking back through these. The kids pass this paper around while they are testing without any issues. When you get the sign-up sheet back, add the names of anyone absent—this will make it quick and easy to jot down their codename as they come in to take their test on a later day. This is also why I have them write their codenames on their MC test book—I can always refer back to their original test if I can’t determine who a codename belongs to.

So why go to all this trouble? When the kids peer grade they will never grade their own class period. Color coding helps me keep things straight on grading day– “Blue was 1st period, so I shouldn’t have any blue papers being graded right now”. The codenames are to keep the kids as fair (and as nice) as possible. This way they don’t go “Oh, Bobby Sue is super smart, so this has to be correct- score:10” and on the flipside, they don’t know the names of their peers that don’t have the best writing skills or write painfully incorrect things i.e. “The depletion of ozone causes an increase in greenhouse gases” * cringe *

Peer Grading- The Buy In

I always make it a point to tell my kids WHY we are doing something. The very first time we peer grade I tell them:

  • I lose 14 instructional days for peer grading over the course of the year. I wouldn’t waste 2.5 school weeks if I didn’t find this process crucial to their success on the AP® exam.
  • They can see good writing and they can also see really, really bad writing. Also, which I think is the most important, they can see how someone seems to have a general understanding of the topic but doesn’t write their answer well enough or explain/describe enough to earn a point.
  • They can mentally compare their answers to the rubric and see what various answers College Board accepts as a correct answer. While they peer grade, I have the opportunity to clear up misconceptions and explain why something is incorrect or too vague.
  • They can get a “calibration grade”. I will explain how to do this later in the post, but I tell them if I look at how they graded an FRQ and codename “Texas Blind Salamander” has scores of 3,2,3,3,4 from their peers but they gave the paper a score of a 9, they are not calibrated with their peers and didn’t take the task seriously–their calibration grade will be a reflection of that.

Peer Grading Day- Now What?

Prior to peer grading day I print off a class set of the College Board Rubrics for the FRQ(s) I used for that particular unit. All released FRQs and their rubrics can be found at AP® Central:

When the day is over, I stick these in a manila folder so I can pull them back out next year which saves me paper (yay) and keeps me away from the copy machine the following year (double yay!).

I also build a Google Form for the kids to fill out as they peer grade. It includes their name, the codename of the paper they are grading, the paper color they are grading, the point values per subtopic and the total points earned. You can add other things for classification purposes but those basic things work for me.


Sometimes, if there is a big misconception in the rubric I will add it to the “description” part because, as we are all aware, kids don’t always listen during instructions when you say “hey guys- look at Part B in the rubric…”

At the beginning of the year, I don’t expect them to grade as many FRQs as compared to the number they need to grade at the end of the year. In a 45-minute period, kids can grade 4-5 papers at the beginning of the year, while at the end they can grade 6-8 papers. If they don’t grade the number I provide, I take off calibration points.

Variations on Peer Grading- What I’ve Done in the Past

  • Grouping kids. I used to put kids in groups to peer grade. In a utopian classroom, they would spend 15-20 minutes individually (quietly) grading a handful of FRQs and then come together to collectively discuss why a paper earned/did not earn various points. This works okay the first few times, but what ends up happening is they go through the papers as quickly as possible so they can sit and talk/play on their phones once they finish. Another issue I always had to address when grouping them is they can’t just Rock-Paper-Scissors their way to a score. The idea is if someone gave Part A 2 points and another person gave 0 points, they need to discuss WHY to determine the points earned for Part A- not just meet in the middle. The reason I don’t do this anymore is because 1. not as many papers get scored 2. The feedback I received from kids when I switched from group grading to individual grading is they liked being able to spend more time with each paper and the lower-level kids weren’t just riding the group’s coat-tails, so-to-speak.

  • Using slips of paper for the kids to write on instead of a spreadsheet: don’t do this. This is so hard to keep track of and organize. If your kids don’t have access to computers/laptops/tablets in the classroom, see if you can schedule a day for the computer lab. It’s definitely worth it to avoid sorting through slips of papers!
  • Feedback. The biggest complaint I personally have about doing FRQs this way is the lack of feedback. I don’t think the kids care all that much, but I have yet to come up with a solid method of providing feedback. (Yes, I know, I could suck it up and just hand grade FRQs with detailed notes about “more description” or “too vague” but with my enrollment ranging from 70-160, I flat out don’t have the time to do that). Last year I tried something that worked okay but towards second semester I stopped doing it for some reason. I had the kids provide “Warm & Cool Feedback” slips for at least two of the FRQs they graded (another nugget I received at APSI training!). To ensure each kid received feedback, as an FRQ paper was peer graded with a feedback sheet, it was hole punched to signify a feedback sheet had been made for that paper and no paper could have more than 2 hole punches. Once collected and sorted, I’d hand these back when the kids were working independently. I had mixed reviews- I overheard one student say “Well, this person said to write more but this person said I write too much”—maybe I will give it another try.

How to Determine Scores

The hard part is over- let’s determine scores! Below is a tutorial video I made which is WAY easier than trying to type out what to do with your excel spreadsheet. The video explains how to pull the data from the Google Form, organize it and determine calibration scores.

Click for Katy’s FRQ Grading Tutorial Video

And there you have it! Is this the absolute most perfect way to peer grade FRQs? Most definitely not, but, it’s how that little nugget of wisdom 11 years ago has evolved into a system that works for me. Hopefully you can make some part of this nugget work in your classroom!

AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse this site