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.


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