From Serendip


Empowering teachers to employ open-ended inquiry to teach ecology

An Inquiry-Based Teaching Module
developed by Ann Herzig, Department of Biology, Bryn Mawr College


Teaching ecology to children is easy. All children have a fascination with other creatures. To teach children ecology we need to give them the opportunity to explore the plants and animals within their local environments. This enhances their awareness and appreciation of other organisms. Learning how to conduct experiments using these organisms teaches them how the scientific method is employed in the science of ecology.

Ecology is the study of how organisms interact with their environments. It provides the foundation for the much broader discipline of environmental studies, which includes both social and scientific issues related to the environment. Ecology education need not be limited to areas that are relatively pristine, but can include the study of organisms in areas that are heavily influenced by humans, like cities. There are plenty of interesting natural history observations to be made within an urban environment. For example, birds during migration can form dense and diverse aggregations in city parks, oases within a sea of concrete. Insects and spiders are everywhere. Lichens can grow on bare rock. The study of ecology in urban settings demonstrates the important lesson that humans are interacting members of a much larger global system. Care and respect for the environment is fostered by an understanding of one's personal impact on the local environment.

The inquiry-based approach

My approach to inquiry-based ecology education involves first, getting students outside to make observations of other creatures in their surroundings. This activity opens their eyes to the wonders of nature in their own backyards. These kinds of natural history observations form the cornerstone of any ecological study. Second, I ask students to generate some questions about what they're seeing. Third, we collectively discuss how we could design experiments to answer some of these questions. Fourth, we carry out an experiment of our own design. Fifth, the students present the results and draw some conclusions based on their data. Lastly, this leads to the generation of new hypotheses and new experiments.

This approach provides students with the opportunity for independent discovery. By using the organisms and habitats that occur in their local schoolyards, these lessons will be repeatedly reinforced as they invariably continue to make observations on their own. What they learn about the ecological interactions within their local surroundings will allow them to better understand ecological issues elsewhere, including global environmental concerns.


1. Go outside to make observations and bring back questions

2. Discuss the questions and the criteria for what makes an interesting and answerable question

3. The basics of experimental design

4. Ecology themes

5. Resources

6. Return outside for a quick tutorial on the use of field guides and to try guided observations based on specific ecology themes

7. Discuss how to adapt these lessons to the individual teacher's schoolyard


Annotated source list


Futuyma, Douglas J. 1995. Science on trial : the case for evolution. Sunderland, Mass., U.S.A. : Sinauer Associates. 287 p.

A terrific primer on evolution for teachers confronting resistance to the teaching of evolution. Spawned in the days of "creationist science", this book does an excellent job of clearly explaining the difference between science and religion.

Ecology education

Stein, Sara Bonnett. 2001 Noah's children : restoring the ecology of childhood. New York : North Point Press. 307 p.

This author has written books on ecological interactions within our backyard gardens. She advocates native plantings that encourage native plants and animals. She has also written science books for children. In this latest book she laments how present-day children are not given opportunities to explore the natural world and the importance of restoring these activities to foster their development and their appreciation of nature.

Plant guides

Newcomb, Lawrence. 1977. Newcomb's wildflower guide. Little, Brown and Company, Boston.

An excellent field guide to wildflowers, flowering shrubs and vines of northeastern and north-central North America. Includes an easy-to-use identification key, and denotes native and nonnative species.

Petrides, G.A. and J. Wehr. 1998. A field guide to Eastern trees, the Peterson field guide series. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston

One of many superb field guides in the Peterson series. Includes beautiful illustrations, an easy-to-use identification system, and range maps. Also includes a useful section on how to identify trees in the winter.

Insect and spider guides

Borror, D.J. and R.E. White.1970. A field guide to Insects, Peterson field guide series. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston

Another excellent book in the Peterson field guide series. Includes a frontispiece with a pictured key to the major insect groups and excellent illustrations. The authority on insect identification.

Cottam, Clarence, Jonathan P. Latimer, David Wagner, Herbert Spencer Zim. 2001. Insects : A Guide to Familiar American Insects (a golden guide). St. Martin's Press.

The original edition of this book in the golden guide series was terrific; it included the common insects in our area. It has recently been updated and revised.

Kaston, B.J. 1978. How to know the spiders, third edition. The pictured key nature series, Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa.

Part of a large series of "how to know the…" books, including books on insects, lichens, plant families, weeds, etc. Includes identification keys, information on how to collect and preserve spiders and their basic biology.

Wildlife guides

Reid, G.K., H.S. Zim, and G.S. Fichter. 2001. Pond life: A guide to common plants and animals of North American ponds and lakes (a golden guide). St. Martin's Press

One of a large series of "golden guides". These are simple, but excellent little books that somehow seem to include the most commonly encountered organisms. They include simple, informative ecological descriptions as well. This is a newly updated and revised edition.

Martin, A.C., H.S. Zim, A.L. Nelson. 1951. American wildlife and plants: a guide to wildlife food habits. Dover Publications, Inc., New York.

Based on extensive U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collection records of animal stomach contents, this book summarizes the use of trees, shrubs, weeds, and herbs by birds and mammals of the United States. Organized by plants and by animals, so one can look up a food or an animal of interest.

Conant, Roger , Joseph T. Collins. 1998. A Field Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians of Eastern & Central North America(Peterson Field Guide Series). Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston

Burt, William H., Richard P. Grossenheider 1998. A Field Guide to the Mammals : North America North of Mexico (Peterson Field Guides). Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston

Bird guides

Dunn, Jon L. 1999. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America : Revised and Updated. National Geographic Society.

Comprehensive field guide.

Elliott, Lang . 1993. Know Your Bird Sounds, Vol.1: Yard, Garden, and City Birds (audio compact disc and 44-page booklet). Nature Sound Studio, Ithaca, New York.

Elliott is an authority on bird song. He includes on the audio portion of this collection the full repertoire of calls of 35 common bird species found in suburban and urban settings in eastern and central North America. This publication is designed to introduce the amateur to identifying birds by their calls. Elliott has produced a variety of excellent audio publications.

Peterson, Roger Tory (Illustrator) 1998 A Field Guide to the Birds : A Completely New Guide to All the Birds of Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides), 4th ed. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston

There is a guide to Western birds in this series also.

Robbins, C.S., B. Bruun, and H.S. Zim, J. Latimer. 2001. Birds of North America : A Guide to Field Identification (Golden Field Guide Series.). St Martin's Press

An excellent guide for the beginner. Recently updated.

Reflections on ecology module

My first task was to get the teachers outside to convince them that 1) ecology is best taught outdoors using living organisms in their surroundings and 2) it is easy for anyone to make observations and come up with questions for study. They were asked to wander off alone, make observations, and write down questions that came to them about the organisms in their surroundings. The teachers seemed curious about everything and came up with great questions. We had a good dicussion afterwards of how they could design scientific investigations to answer these kinds of questions. After a short break, we talked about the use of field guides. We returned outside where I demonstrated how to use the identification key in a wildflower guide to identify weeds we found in the lawn. They became excited to discover how easy it was to identify plants using this guide and they were also excited about the hand lenses we used to look at small structures on the plants. I had intended next to have them work in groups to conduct guided observations, where they hunted for specific types of creatures, plant structures, habitats, and the like, but rain prevented it. Instead, we returned inside where we briefly talked about more guided inquiry and how they could use it in the same way as the unstructured inquiry that we did at the beginning of the session. For the last half hour we discussed how they thought they could adapt these activities to their schoolyards.

I thought the module worked well in part because I gave them a variety of things to think about. We tried completely unstructured inquiry as well as more specific activities. I was gratified when teachers at the end commented on how surprised they were to discover that coming up with questions was easy and how they recognized that teaching ecology could be easy too. I think learning how to use identification keys was extremely useful to them, as was the introduction to hand lenses. We got into a discussion of how little money they have to spend on books and supplies, how they have no say in what books their libraries buy. They thought the field guides would be valuable tools. Some are considering using the money for supplies that they will get from this grant to purchase field guides for their students.

I thought it was very important to leave plenty of time for discussion and reflection, especially at the end. In this way, everyone could benefit from the ideas that others had about how to adapt these lessons to their own teaching. I learned a lot from listening to them about how their approaches to teaching at the middle and high school levels. We also got into an interesting discussion about teaching evolution, the importance of making clear to students the difference between science and religion, and the definition of a theory. One teacher had the misconception that because evolution is stated as a theory, this meant it was "unproven" and therefore, not accepted as fact. It was pointed out that theories are based on a series of observations as opposed to religion, which is based on faith, and that these are two different ways of making sense of our world. I think leaving time for these kinds of impromptu discussions helped enliven the day and keep people engaged.

(see Nature of Science for a follow-up)