Ecocolumns can teach the kids A LOT of scientific concepts if you are purposeful with the learning. If not, the kids just enjoy growing plants and having a fish and this is not worth the class time it takes.
Make sure you take the time to lecture or allow for inquiry discussions about the scientific processes in an ecocolumns. Students can take observations and make inferences, but you will need to teach them about some of the indirect processes going on (such as nutrient cycling).
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10 Scientific Concepts in Ecocolumns
- Data collection, graphing and analysis. The more the kids take data and see patterns over time, the better the kids are able to answer these types questions on the AP Exam. The AP Exam is 2/3 higher level thinking and will have data-set analysis. In order to give my students more lab time, I flip my class.
- Nutrient Cycling. Direct kids to see how the nitrogen cycle, carbon cycle, phosphorus cycle and water cycle are implemented in the ecocolumn. Kids really can’t figure this out on their own through inquiry so its best to have direct instruction in this (even though I’m a huge inquiry fan). Dead fish provide a great learning opportunity if you bury it in the soil.
- Nitrogen Cycle. Big emphasis on this cycle which is hugely important in this class and on the AP Exam. Nitrogen fixation with the legumes, fish waste (ammonification) and then nitrification with beneficial bacteria.
- Limiting Factors. Plants will soon run out of space and decline. Fish could run out of dissolved oxygen if they’re too big for the chamber or if the kids put in too many.
- Decomposition and Detritivores and Leaf Litter. I favor a filter chamber instead of a decomposition chamber, but we add worms and other detritivores to the terrestrial chamber to teach them about decomposition. My students don’t live in a forest (we live in Chaparral) so they don’t know about leaf litter–this is how they learn.
- Water treatment and wastewater treatment. The filter chamber mimics one step in water treatment and is also tertiary wastewater treatment.
- Food Web. Elodea or duckweed eaten by the fish. Pests that find the ecocolumn and eat the plants.
- Water Quality: Temperature, pH, Dissolved Oxygen, Nitriates. Students will see how they change (or don’t change) over time and may begin to see patterns.
- Soil Quality: Temperature, pH, fertility (NPK). Kids can see how soil quality changes (or doesn’t change) over time. You will need to guide them to why each test is important. They can also learn about soil structure, leaching, tannins, drainage etc.
- Eutrophication and BOD. If you have a dissolved oxygen probe or test kit (I highly recommend buying a dissolved oxygen probe if you have some funds). This is a common topic on the AP exam and there is no better way for students to understand BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand), eutrophication and other issues than to measure DO over time. I like the Milwaukee MW600 LED Economy Portable Dissolved Oxygen Meter.