Container Seeds in Ecocolumns

This year, I had packets of donated seeds that my students used in ecocolumns. Two of the packets were varieties made for containers and grew better than any plants had before in ecocolumns.

Container cucumber plant with a plethora of flowers and huge leaves.

These were the two varieties of container plants we tried this year (along with a bunch of other seeds). You can find them on Amazon by clicking on the links.

Typically, my student’s grow about 1-2 beans from one plant in their ecocolumns, if they’re lucky. Some of my students now have 10+ beans in their ecocolumns using this variety. They love eating them!

Bean plant with 2 green beans on it.

Not only were there more flowers and fruit, but I am so pleased with the results of the plant growth this year that I will try to purchase and use more container plant seeds next year.

Lots of green plant growth in this ecocolumn. Student is measuring soil using a Rapitest Soil Probe.

* 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.

A Review of Hanna pH Meters

I recently tested three of Hanna’s pH Meters in my high school science lab. Hanna is a specialist and leader in pH technology for industry as well as education and I looked forwarded forward to trying these pH meters out.

Waterproof Pocket pH Tester in Calibration Solution

pHep Pocket pH Tester

I really liked this pocket pH tester for use in EcoColumns. It is fairly inexpensive ($39.95) and has nice features. This pH meter comes with packets of buffer solutions for calibration and calibration was easy and electronic. This is an improvement on the cheap pH probes (different brand) I previously used that required a screwdriver to calibrate. They are also waterproof! A big plus with students who aren’t as careful as they should be. Would be a good probe for an Ocean Acidification Lab for Chemistry or Environmental Science. The tester can also be purchased on Amazon if your school has an Amazon account.

Packets of buffer solutions-already in liquid form for easy calibration.

Calibration also held fairly well with five groups of students using the testers each lab day. I needed to calibrate after about 3-4 weeks of ecocolumn data which I have found to be a good length of time for holding calibration .

This pH meter also comes with temperature which means there is no need to purchase a separate temperature probe. It also has an automatic on/off feature (great for students who forget to turn them off) and uses small coin batteries.

Checker® pH Tester with 0.1 pH Resolution

The Checker pH tester ($29.95) is another inexpensive pH meter, but without the temperature add-on. I found that it did not hold calibration as well as the pHep and was not as easy to calibrate (but okay once I figured it out). Its is an option if you want to save a few bucks. It also has electronic calibration which is very nice compared to the screwdriver method with cheaper probes. It has automatic on/off, uses coin batteries and comes with calibration solutions.

Checker pH tester in buffer solution.

HALO® Wireless Field pH Meter

This HALO Wireless Field pH meter is much more precise than the first two. But, it comes with a higher price tab ($165) too. Its a high quality pH meter that would be helpful in chemistry classes that need a more precise pH meter for titration or other labs. The meter also measures temperature and adjusts pH for temperature.

Meter as it comes in the box. Contains buffer solutions in the package.
Meter in buffer solution to calibrate.

This pH meter does not have a digital display, but instead links to an app on a phone, computer or tablet. The free app is easy to use and connects seamlessly with Bluetooth.

Calibration on the app-VERY easy to do.

This pH meter is much more versatile with the ability for a 5 buffer calibration (but you don’t need that many for regular high school lab work). The app can graph, do calculations and share data– it is a powerful tool lab tool.

Sample pH data from Ecocolumns

* 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.

Primary Productivity and Light in the Ocean Lab

I came across this lab from the Monterey Bay Aquarium called “Light in the Deep Sea” a few years ago when I taught Marine Science. I recently pulled it out and used this lab in AP® Environmental Science since it matches topic 1.8 Primary Productivity of the APES Course and Exam Description (CED). Click to access the full version including teacher’s instruction and templates from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In addition to primary productivity, students learn about predator/prey interactions, adaptations, range of tolerance and other ecological concepts.

Click for my student handout. The first 3 pages come from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s PDF. The last page has questions that I made that correspond to various topics in the APES CED. The correlation is at the bottom of the last page. Note: I did not use all of the data sheets provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium-only #1, #2 and #4.


The materials are affordable and will last for years. You need:

Supplies needed per group of 4 students


  • Prepare glasses for students. My student lab assistants made them all for me. They pasted copies of the template onto file folders and cut them out. Then, they stapled the 4 plastic sheets onto each glasses. You can have paperclips to help hold back the plastic pieces as kids use them or skip this step.
  • Cut a larger sheet of black felt as a background and smaller squares of the other colors.
  • Load colored pictures into Google Classroom or another online platform OR print in color. I made a separate PDF of just the pictures to do this (The pictures are found in the instructor’s guide).
These four sheets of plastic are stapled to one end. Students pull back strips as needed.

The Lab

This lab can be completed in one traditional day (45-55) min with students finishing the questions for homework.

You may need to edit some of the questions on the last page depending on where you are in the curriculum. My students have covered all these topics by the time we get to productivity, but your students may not have. However, you could keep the questions and discuss in class as a way to preview the topics.

Students learn not only about primary productivity, but about predator/prey interactions, adaptations, resource partitioning and range of tolerance. They practice with visual representations and data analysis.

Click for more labs by unit in AP®Environmental Science.

Labs For Each Unit in AP® Environmental Science

This is a list of labs with links that I do for each unit in the Course Exam and Description. There are many more great labs that APES teachers do. I chose these for the most “bang for the buck”–lots of concepts learned and/or science practices, feasible for many APES sections and large APES classes, feasible for my school’s outdoor area, and budget-friendly from year to year. I typically write small grants for equipment and then use over and over again.

For a list of lab supplies, read this post.

If I have a post written about the lab, you are able to click on the title of the lab to read about it.

Unit 1: The Living World: Ecosystems

  1. EcoColumns–this lasts for 3 months and covers topics in Units 1, 2, 4 & 8
  2. Productivity Lab –I use a video lab to save time, but there are many versions for students to physically do.
  3. Owl Pellet Lab
  4. Light in the Deep Sea Activity from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Unit 2: The Living World: Biodiversity

  1. Island Biogeography Lab–There are many wonderful shared variations of this lab. I have a longer, analytical, inquiry-based 5E version on TPT, if interested.

Unit 3: Populations

  1. Cemetery Lab –Many good labs shared by many teachers. Mine is a 5E with data analysis, text analysis, and math calculations.

Unit 4: Earth Systems and Resources

  1. Soil Labs 
    1. Chemistry of Soil (N,P,K,pH). Many good versions of this lab out there and many good kits . I do this lab with ecocolumns.
    2. Physical Properties of Soil (porosity, soil type, color, permeability). (My students do at their summer workshop at the local water agency. But there are many good versions and good kits for this lab.
  2. Tree Rings and Climate Change (can be covered with El Nino in unit 4 or wait until Unit 9)–a post is coming soon!
  3. Coriolis Effect and Atmospheric Circulation Lab from Carolina.

Unit 5: Land and Water Use

  1. The Tragedy of the Commons Lab
  2. Trees and Forests Lab–Students go outside to measure trees and discover ecosystem services. Many shared versions are out there from teachers. A long, analytical 5E is on TPT, if interested.
  3. Salinization Lab (This is my 1st controlled lab which is used as scaffolding for other experimental design labs)
  4. Cookie Mining–A post is coming soon!
  5. Climate Change and Cities Experimental Design Lab (or in Unit 9)–A post coming soon. Can be purchased on TPT, if interested.
Salinization lab

Unit 6: Energy Resources and Consumption

  1. Kill-A-Watt Lab

Unit 7: Atmospheric Pollution

  1. Particulates Experimental Design Lab
  2. Tropospheric Ozone Virtual Picture Lab

Unit 8: Aquatic and Terrestrial Pollution

  1. Water Quality Testing 5E Lab
  2. Biomagnification Lab-This version is from the Monterey Bay Aquarium
  3. Toxins Lab

Unit 9: Global Change

  1. Tree Rings and Climate Change Lab (or in Unit 4)–a post is coming soon!
  2. Climate Change and Cities Experimental Design Lab (or in Unit 5)–a post is coming soon!
  3. Ocean Acidification Experimental Design Lab (if time, I have not had time the last few years)
  4. Measuring Biodiversity. Many good choices out there including a Parking Lot Lab. I sometimes use quadrats for biodiversity.

After the AP Exam
1. Solar Cookers (usually done after the AP Exam as it takes several days). Many options shared from many teachers that are wonderful. I have a longer, analytical 5E on TPT, if interested.

Biomagnification Activity from the Monterey Bay Aquarium

I really like this biomagnification activity from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I discovered this activity in a Monterey Bay Aquarium workshop at a conference I attended a couple of years ago.  Its accessible for different levels of learners in regular NGSS Biology and regular Environmental science and has enough technical science for AP® kids.

The materials are easy to use and cheap. My school laminates for me to make the items durable for many years.

This activity focuses on POPs-Persistent Organic Pollutants and then plastic pollution in the ocean, but we discuss mercury pollution in top predatory fish as well.

How to do the Biomagnification Activity

The instructions from the Monterey Bay Aquarium are easy to follow,  but here are some pictures that may also help.

Each student gets a card. The instructions tell you the correct proportions for your class size. Each trophic level hunts at the same time.

These are ocean “molecule” cards.

I use the center lab table in my lab, but you can do this outside or inside on the floor. I spread them out and don’t worry about turning them all over. I tell students they can only “hunt” with one hand and place the molecules in the other hand.

A sample of molecules that were picked up and counted,

Students need to tally their POPs only. Then, they write their POP total on a mini post-it note.

The first round is all the phytoplankton–about (15-20 students). The second round is all the zooplankton (about 8-9 students), then the sardines (5-6 students), salmon (2-3 students) and finally 1 human. After the phytoplankton hunt, the other hunters during their round take the tally of POPs on the mini post-it-note from the previous trophic level and then continue to hunt on the table.

Sample data from a “Salmon”

After the simulation, students answer questions, read and annotate/highlight.

A nice leveled reading for students

I make copies of pages 8-10 of the document for my students. This is nice, easy and meaningful biomagnification activity for my students and leads well into Water Quality. 

Math Differentiation in Science

Students in science classes often have differing math abilities and its difficult to cover math without boring some kids and losing other kids. One way to approach  is to allow student to have choices on how to approach the math problems. This is a form of differentiation and allows kids to take ownership of their own learning. To do this method, you will need videos of your math lessons. This is not a onerous task. I usually record a worksheet in just 15 minutes on the Explain Everything app. I upload to Youtube, or Google Drive and share the links on Google Classroom.

Since videos are recorded, students can go at their own pace and direct their learning.

Introducing Differentiation to Students

Kids do well when they understand “why”. I go over the Immediate Goal with them:

  • To practice how to do various energy word problems in order to get a good grade on Exams, the Final Exam and the AP® Exam.

And the Ultimate Goal:

  • Life is made of word problems. You can use these skills as you analyze household bills, your car’s fuel efficiency, purchasing decisions, etc.  Some of you will also need these skills in your career.

Directions for Students

  • Skim your paper/s
  • Make a choice on how to proceed 


A. Work through problems on own–persevering through difficult ones until your brain clicks and you have an “Aha” moment.  Check answers with key when finished. Sample Answer Key:

Review papers with keys.

B. Work through problems on own, when stuck for longer than 1-2 minutes on a problem, check solution and answer on key.  Then, go onto the next problem without the key.

C. Work through the easier problems on own, skip the harder ones. Then, watch the video to check answers on the easier ones and to learn how to solve the harder ones. Fast forward the video to the problems you need help with. Example Video Below:

D. Watch the videos in their entirely to learn how to solve the problems.

NOT an Acceptable Choice: Copy the solutions and answers from the key or from a friend. You will earn a bad grade on your next exam, the final exam and the AP® Exam.

  • Tell your elbow part which one you are going to choose and why
  • Can you switch later?  Absolutely
  • Can you start one way and then change?  Absolutely


Grade your students not only on completion, but also for following one of the choices. Rotate around the room to make sure they are on task. Accountability comes when students take an exam and know or don’t know how to do the problems.