Wednesday, August 6, 2008 - 4:40 PM

OOS 17-10: Bringing current ecological research to the classroom through inquiry-based activities that utilize actual scientific methods

Larisa R. G. DeSantis, University of Florida and Florida Museum of Natural History

The discipline of ecology is dynamic, with current research contributing to the development of new ideas, hypotheses, and research questions every day. However, the excitement for ecological discovery is not always felt by K-12 students. This is potentially due to the lack of communication between current science and that taught in the classroom. By increasing the communication of scientific methods and results of on-going scientific discoveries, K-12 students can become more scientifically literate through inquiry-based activities developed from current research. Here, I demonstrate how current ecological and paleoecological research can be translated into educational activities that mimic the actual research processes conducted by ecologists. Through two case examples, I demonstrate how inquiry-based activities are developed that communicate such topics as paleoecological reconstructions, the ecology and evolution of fossil animals, and complex concepts such as the synergistic interactions of sea-level rise and drought on coastal plant communities. 

Paleoecological reconstructions such as those seen in museums or movies are often of interest to students; however, understanding the scientific methods behind these reconstructions is not always straightforward. Therefore, the first case example enables students to investigate what North America looked like during the last ~55 million years using fossil horse and tapir teeth. By examining the shape of these teeth and the microscopic wear features that resulted from the processing of food, students can interpret when grasslands expanded and make their own environmental reconstructions using the same methods as paleoecologists. The second case example demonstrates complex concepts of synergistic interactions through collaboratively developing experiments that can identify such effects. Based on current global change research that documents the accelerated decline of coastal forests due to sea-level rise and drought interactions, students can test their own hypotheses in a laboratory version of this field research. These activities utilize multiple learning styles to communicate current ecological research while improving science process skills though the collection, analysis, and interpretation of scientific data. Developing a passion for scientific discovery in K-12 students requires active engagement in the scientific process, examining hot new questions rolling off the presses of scientific journals.