My students’ favorite lab is building and taking care of Ecocolumns. This lab gives them practice in long-term data collection and a myriad of other essential topics in APES. Here are the posts you can click on to learn how to build, buy supplies and assess ecocolumns.
The labs on this post tend to be popular, because they cover a lot of topics within the lab, build skills, and/or are engaging. You don’t need to do all of them! I do about half of the ones listed below. Some labs have links for the write-ups.
Sharpies (need 10 black for the year) Spoons (need 1 box for labs) De-chlorine drops for fish tanks Filters for fish tank Aquarium light bulbs Fish food Colored markers (Crayola or similar) for lab conclusion posters Painter’s tape for marking beakers, lab apparatus Hand Sanitizer-large container for classroom Batteries for various sensors and probes
A question new AP® Environmental Science teachers ask is “What supplies do I need?” or “What kits should I buy?” This post will go over basic APES lab supplies.
Kits are a great way to start and can help many new AP® teachers, but aren’t necessary if you don’t have the funds. Most labs can be sourced more cheaply by ordering individual items.
APES lab supplies can be cheap or expensive. What you decide to do depends on your location (some outdoor labs are regional), the materials you have, the size of your classes and how much money you have. Over time, apply for grants and other funding to build up your supply of plant lights, probesware etc.
You need basic lab supplies that your school should already have such as glass and plastic beakers, balances, graduated cylinders etc.
APES Lab Supplies for Must-do Labs
While there are no official required labs for APES, there are a few which have appeared on the AP® Exam or cover many concepts that have appeared on the exam. Here are some recommendations for APES lab supplies.
If you have a pond or creek to walk to, you may want a portable kit and a couple of hip waders and macroinvertebrate collection devices or kits.
Probes or sensors are more expensive initially, but end up saving money over multiple years. See this post for supply ideas for an in-class lab.
My favorite inexpensive dissolved oxygen meter is the Milwaukee Dissolved Oxygen Probe. It rarely needs calibration and lasts for years. Also, fairly inexpensive (for a DO meter) on Amazon.
Experimental Design Lab: Don’t do as a separate lab just to teach scientific method at the beginning of the year–you don’t have time in an AP® course. Instead, teach experimental design with another lab such as salinization, ocean acidification, biodiversity with quadrats, or air particulates.
One of the best (and easy to implement) labs I do is an air pollution lab–airborne particulates lab. I worked with a colleague at a neighboring school (Laura Solarez) to develop this lab for AP® Environmental Science.
Poster paper with markers (optional) for lab assessment
Day one of the air pollution lab takes about 45-60 minutes. Student lab groups brainstorm and come up with a question to test, a hypothesis, and design. They must get two approvals from me before making their petri dishes. My students have already done an experimental design lab so this process is fairly quick at this point. If this is the first experimental design lab of the year, expect this to take longer and for students to need more revision.
This lab is challenging with the constants. They can never really isolate all the variables and because of this, they will get flawed data. This is really important!! Analyzing the weaknesses in their lab help them identify flawed experiments later on in life and on the AP® Exam. I aim to develop scientifically literature citizens.
I give students some ideas such as comparing indoor vs. outdoor particulates, front yard vs. back yard or the number of pets. Some students come up with very creative ideas outside of these suggestions.
If rain is in the forecast, make sure they don’t set out the dishes in the rain (or sprinklers). Also, they need to make sure they all set out the dishes on the same day for the same amount of time, because weather can influence.
After approvals, students make their dishes. I made this video last year. They pay attention to the video more than me demonstrating in person! I show the video up to minute 3:18 on Day 1
Make sure you tell students to make a little sign at home, because I’ve had many dishes thrown away by parents over the years. They don’t know what it is and just throw away. Students make a sign that says “Science experiment–don’t throw away”.
Day 2 of the Lab
Day 2 of the air pollution lab is several days later. Give students enough time (over the weekend, for example) to expose their dishes for at least 24 hours. Students bring their dishes back to school on the day you instruct.
I show the rest of my video to help them understand how to count the particulates using stereoscopes. If you don’t have stereoscopes, you can use LED tap lights and hand lens.
Students need to make a template out of graph paper to use on each petri dish. Its impossible to count every particulate so using a template with a few boxes helps them manage the counting.
Since students work in groups of 4, they divide up tasks. Some count data and some begin their posters. They can switch jobs if they desire.
After students finish counting particulates, They can wash the dishes in hot soapy water and dry. The dishes can be used again next year and also for the Soil Salinization lab.
I like students to make and present posters for this air pollution lab. It really helps them discuss and analyze the results. Why their hypothesis was correct or not AND more importantly, why this lab was flawed. They can never fully control all the variables and I want them to see that other factors may have influenced their results. This is the best part of the lab–learning to identify flawed experiments.
My poster template is inspired by Argument-Based Inquiry, but I have added more sections and clearer instructions.
I have had students present to the entire class, present to two other groups, or make a Flipgrid. All three ways have merit.
You can also have students write a formal lab report individual or as a group as assessment as well.
Water Quality Testing is essential for AP® Environmental Science students. Every released exam has water quality test questions.
Ideally, taking kids to a stream or pond is best, but testing water quality in the field is not possible for my students in arid Southern California. Surface water is seasonal and often too far away. Instead, my students bring in water samples to the lab.
Scroll to the bottom for links to student handouts.
Teaching Students to Collect a Water Sample
I demonstrate how to take a water sample for students. This year, I made a video which they enjoyed more than my demonstration.
Any empty bottle (water, Gatorade etc) works. Rinse out a little with the sample water and then fill under the water. Interesting water sources include rivers, creeks, ponds, lakes, well water, the ocean and fountains.
Ideally, students should wear gloves to collect the sample. But, if they forgot to bring gloves, they can throughly wash with warm water and soap after collecting the sample.
Students should cap the bottle under the water to prevent air at the top from skewing the dissolved oxygen (DO) results. Sometimes, this isn’t possible (with a small creek or heavy waves in the ocean) so I tell them to do the best they can. There is some error as Biological Oxygen Demand will decrease the DO reading, but we discuss this.
Students need to label the bottles and bring to class on the day we do water quality testing.
In the Lab
I used a LaMotte water quality testing kit the first year I taught APES, but soon realized that probeware was more economical in the long run with the quantity of students I have. I was accepted for grant funding to purchase my initial probeware and have used science funds and donation money to replace items as needed. Read where to find science funding.
I use a variety of water quality testing devices that are easy to use. I used to have a full set of Vernier probes, but over time they either broke or I stopped using them due to needing calibration–sometimes right in the middle of a lab! This collection is what I currently use–requires little prep work on my part and works for an entire day–5 sections of APES students.
I rotate baskets instead of kids going to stations. This is easier with 36 kids in lab and then they don’t have to travel with their water sample. I give kids about 4 minutes per basket and then they rotate clockwise. Kids also spend that time using reference sheets to see what the test measures and what are the levels for safe drinking water and for healthy aquatic life.
Water Quality Testing Devices
This is the LaMotte Testing kit I used before I received grant money to purchase my initial probeware 12 year ago.
Today, I use a variety of items that are reliable, economical for 165 kids in APES and easy to use. They’ve been acquired over a dozen years through various means and I’ve changed a few items over time. Most of them have links to Amazon if you want to read more about the item.
One of the most common (and important!) labs in AP® Environmental Science is the Soil Salinization Lab.
There are many versions of the lab that are great. This is mine. It has been altered and changed with ideas from lots of teachers over the year.
(Side note: I am a HUGE fan of inquiry, but I do not do an inquiry lab for this topic for a couple of reasons. I want kids to do a proper controlled experiment before they do experimental design later on. They can refer to this lab when they are designing their own later in the year. This is part of scaffolding. With each controlled experiment (such as Ocean Acidification), I remove more instructions and parameters. Another reason is that I also want the kids to test specific concentrations of salt, because we use the results for an LD-50 lab later in the year.)
Graduated cylinders with optional pipets to help kids with precise measurements. Mark one graduated cylinder for the 5% solution and one for the distilled water. Same with pipets. This prevents cross-contamination. Train the kids to be careful and prevent cross-contamination. Even a couple of drops of salt left over in a graduated cylinder can influence results.
Prepare a 5% salt solution by mixing 5g of NaCl (Table salt) with 95ml distilled water. Make enough for your classes. I make about a liter for my 5 classes of APES.
I like pea seeds and prepare these containers for the groups. Tell the kids to keep covered to prevent fungi contamination. Fungi does ruin the soil salinization lab on occasion. I’ve had it happen once in 12 years. Use very clean petri dishes and keep beakers covered when not in use to prevent this.
What seeds to use?
I’ve used peas, mung beans and radishes for soil salinization over the years. My favorite is peas, but the others work as well. Radishes tend to have lower tolerance to salt. You can even have students test different seeds in different groups. Mung beans sprout quickly and have a nice tolerance to salt as well.
Using Ziploc Bags
I use snack-sized Ziploc bags with my online APES class that I meet with on Saturday mornings a few times a year. The bags are convenient as I don’t need them back when the lab is over and they’re inexpensive. In my regular classes, I prefer petri dishes as they can be reused from year to year and are easier for the kids to work with the seeds.
Use a sharpie to mark the bags and create a paper towel “taco”. Wet the paper towels before putting the seeds in or they roll around too much.
Day 1 of the Lab
Go over the first page of the lab together with students. They have difficulty with the terms (control, variables, constants) if they’re out of practice. Also, teach the students to use words such as “increasing” or “decreasing” in their hypothesis as this is good practice for FRQs. Its also more of a “collegiate” and precise hypothesis.
Students need to do the math for serial dilution before beginning the lab. I usually go how to do the math and then they can easily solve.
After doing the math, they can prepare the soil salinization dishes.
Make sure they use separate graduated cylinders for 5% NaCl solution and distilled water. Have a “mixing” beaker to mix the solution before pouring over the seeds. This makes sure that the solution is evenly mixed.
Best way to prepare the dishes
Day 2 the lab (3-4 days later is optimal)
Students will take data on the # and % of seeds that germinated and measure the sprout length. I tell students to measure the longest sprout in each dish.
Results take about 15 minutes. Then students wash and dry dishes. I store and use the dishes again for an air pollution lab and again next year.
No matter how well an ecocolumn is built, some columns will have issues. Fish die, plants, die, fish disappear (yes, they do), plants disappear. Weird plants grow, bugs infect, they’re dropped, etc. Its all OK. Its part of learning and discovering and as teachers, sometimes we have to say we don’t know either and leave it at that. Read about some things they will learn, however, through ecocolumns.
This year, I revised my Kill-A-Watt lab with a lot more math, better leading questions to help students to figure out the concepts, a phenomena that is referenced throughout and an Evaluate with solutions. The lab with an answer key can be found here.
Students always need more math and so this updated version has more calculations based around different strands of Christmas Lights. It brings in the concept that cheaper devices break more often and have more economic consequences as well as being more expensive in the long run.
The math is challenging for students. They needed some scaffolding and we worked through the first part of #17, 18 and 19 together.
I added an “Evaluate” section which has students find solutions to reducing energy. This is surprisingly tricky for students. The question asks them to find ways to REDUCE energy use. Kids automatically think solar and wind and electric cars. None of these reduce energy–just switches to a more sustainable form. Kids need to learn to answer the prompt carefully.
In addition, I added a video at the beginning to engage students as a short phenomena–admittedly its not a great phenomena in the idea NGSS way, but it is really engaging, makes students confused and helps bring together some difficult concepts. I refer to it several times throughout the lab. Note: It is a strange video and a little shocking for students. The link is on the answer key in the lab. Use your own discretion on whether to keep it or not. I found it effective to help students understand a lot of concepts about developing countries, tourism, energy etc.
Recently, I received a grant for Kill-A-Watt meters and implemented this new lab. It teaches students about electricity, watts, math and conservation using Kill-A-Watt meters. The kids were SUPER engaged (so were adults who came by) and it was highly relevant for not only their lives, but the energy concepts they need to know. My AP® Environmental Science students did the lab, but the AP® Physics B teacher will also use this year.
You will need to alter the copy to reflect the cost of electricity in your town and the specific appliances that you have or want to use in lab.
Kill-A-Watt Meters: I had one meter per lab table with two items to test at each table. I ordered the Kill-A-Watt EZ model from Amazon. But, I also like the regular model too. The EZ model lets kids see the cost of electricity more easily, but the regular model is easier to use and find the “watts”setting. Either are fine for this lab. (But, if you use my write-up, be sure to change some of the instructions if using the regular model).
Various appliances from your science room or from home.
Power Strips (optional). The plugs in my lab are on the sides of the tables so I found power strips were very helpful. That way all the kids in a group could see the meter when it was plugged in. I ordered a few of these to have ready next year. If your’e writing a grant, be sure to add a few of these, if needed in your lab.
Christmas lights (optional, but really engaging for the kids) . I was fortunate to find regular and Energy start Christmas lights at Target in October, but I couldn’t find LED lights so I ordered online. They were pricey, but I only needed 1 strand and it will last for several years for this lab. (And I can use to decorate my classroom for Christmas!)
I had two devices per lab table and meter. The students rotated from table to table. I utilized items in the lab whenever possible, like this TV.
Students took data on a chart and then created a graph. I had a Kill-A-Watt meter set up at each lab table along with 2-3 appliances and then set a timer for kids to rotate every 4-5 minutes. I had 9 tables and it took about 45 minutes to rotate to every table.
If kids finished that station before the timer, they worked on the bar graph of their data chart.
Explain-Vampire Power and Conservation
I showed a couple of videos helping explain some of the data that kids see. I wanted them to notice the appliances that still drew power even when not turned on. Many students have never heard of this. I also wanted them to see good examples of energy conservation.
Kids did A LOT of practice with energy math–which they need for the AP® Exam. It is also needed in real life. In addition, they discussed the environmental and human health costs of electricity.
Students need a practice in this for the new FRQs in 2020. This is surprisingly tricky for students as they often don’t answer the specific question.
Students need to think of three ways to conserve electricity or energy in each of the following categories. Remember CONSERVING energy is not replacing it with solar, wind, electric cars etc. Replacing with solar, wind, etc. uses the same amount of watts, but in a more sustainable way.
This video has some ideas (warning, the last few seconds are a little racy)
A great way to teach Tragedy of the Commons is with a “fishing” activity. There are many ways to run this simulation that are wonderful. Some teachers use goldfish crackers, some use M&Ms, and some use reusable beads. I use colored marshmallows, because they’re the cheapest “food” option for my large classes.
This is my “Happy Fishing” 5E. It is taken from many sources and meshed together with questions that help lead the students into learning about resource use and depletion.
In a good 5E, the title of the lab doesn’t give the concept away. Our students are bright and will google the title “Tragedy of the Commons” on their phones to make sure they get the right answers. Our brightest are often the most uncomfortable with inquiry.
In the “Engage” section, students discuss what are resources that we all share. Ask for volunteers and acknowledge their answers with a “thank you”, but don’t correct them. Tell them that you aren’t going to say if they’re right or wrong right now. We will go back to the question and make corrections at the end of the 5E. Remember, don’t use the term “Tragedy of the Commons” yet.
Many times, I will have two separate copies. One with Engage and Explore and Explain and then the other with Elaborate and Evaluate. This prevents students from looking ahead to try to get the “right answers”.
Divide students into groups of 3 or 4. Write how much each color of “fish” (marshmallow) is worth on the board and have the students copy on their data sheet. I try to estimate which color I have the most of in the bag and make that color worth the highest amount as students tend to make that color reproduce (if they’re strategic).
Tell the students that they are competing with each other for extra credit. The winner of each group gets extra credit and the winner (most $ earned) for the class earns more extra credit. Read over the rules with the kids. You will find that many don’t listen as they’re intent on figuring out how to get the extra credit.
Demonstrate how to make a “net” using tape and straws and a paper towel boat. While they’re making their nets and boats, load up their plates with 5 marshmallows of each color.
Remind them of the rules. Then, “ready, set, fish!”. Time them for 30 seconds and yell “stop”.
You will find that half the groups have depleted their ocean. I say “now I will come and add babies to your ocean. Two babies for each two of the same color that’s left in the ocean”.
This is when the groups who depleted their ocean go “oops”. I say “for this round only, you may choose to throw some back into the ocean”. They will, but many will have a hard time deciding who gets to throw back fish and they usually won’t throw back very many.
The following video shows my students at the beginning of the lab and how I handle the first year when kids deplete their oceans:
Tell them to fill in their data charts for Year 1. There are 3 charts to fill in for Year 1.
Remember, this is inquiry so don’t discuss the term “Tragedy of the Commons” yet. Let them figure out the concept about resource depletion before giving them the term. This is called constructivism and is how students best learn and retain information.
The explain portion is where students work through guided questions in order to discover the scientific concept on their own. Don’t mention the term “Tragedy of the Commons”. Vocabulary and terms come later.
Help the kids with certain questions by asking if any of them fish and what the laws/regulations are. Most kids have at least a couple of kids who fish and know the answers.
Students will write a Statement/Claim about how shared resources can be depleted and how to sustainably manage them.
This is the time in a learning cycle that you check for understanding. Go around to each group and quickly read the statements. Clear misconceptions.
Students may struggle with this task at first, but will get used to it later with more inquiry or 5Es. Be careful not to give away too much information. The more that they can struggle with and then reason out themselves, the better they retain and understand the information.
Students will watch 3 videos that help them understand Tragedy of the Commons in more detail and how its used in real life.
This video shows how rules and regulations are enforced:
This video reinforces the concept of Tragedy of the Commons and solidifies how people need to work together:
The video discusses other commons beyond just fishing:
After these videos, have students go back to the ENGAGE section and make corrections about commons. Make sure kids know that a commons is PUBLIC resources, not private. Food, oil, gasoline, and private land do not work. If they say “forests”, make sure they know to write National Forest on an FRQ since much forested land is privately held.
Water is trickier. In some places (like the Eastern US) water is a commons, but in the Western US, there are complicated water rights. But, cities may own water rights but manage the rights for all the cities so the water functions as a commons. But, privately owned wells or water from streams and rivers aren’t a commons.
The evaluate section here isn’t very long as it doesn’t need to be. Kids need to practice succinctly writing and being able to get the point across with detail without writing too much. This is practice for FRQ writing.