Zoo Case – Ecology On The Go
Glenn Carson and Linda Faulb
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Objective: To introduce students to ecology through the use of a compact portable ecology teaching kit.
The “Ecology on the Go” program was developed in response to new Colorado state education standards which require hands-on learning experiences at all grade levels. This grade flexible program includes hands-on, interactive student group teaching kits that allow for individual discovery as well as team learning and discussion. Our program can be adjusted for all levels of learning skills but was developed for the fourth and fifth grade learning level. “Ecology on the Go” is a two-part program. A slide presentation, called a safari, and the portable zoo case is taken to the classroom to introduce ecology vocabulary and concepts. The safari introduces ecological concepts using animal and plant slides to illustrate examples of the concepts. The zoo case gives the students a chance to work in teams to apply the concepts learned in the safari, to have a hands-on learning experience. During the safari the docent will focus on major themes to introduce ecology vocabulary.
A vocabulary list is forwarded to the teacher before the docent classroom visit. The second part of the program is the zoo tour where students can apply the vocabulary that they have learned.
Biomes are defined as a large geographic area characterized by its climate and dominant plant life. The wide range of biomes which are discussed include tundra, deciduous and coniferous forest, rain forest, grasslands desert and aquatic. The concept of succession, the orderly aging of a community in its march towards balance is covered using a forest fire as an example. Following a fire the fireweed is the first plant to take root among the ashes. Aspen trees follow, thriving in the sunny, open land. Their branches eventually create shade where evergreen trees can take root. When evergreen trees dominate once more, the result is called a climax community.
Food chains are introduced in any discussion of ecology and interrelationships. Beginning with the sun, which provides the energy to start the cycle, the students see slide examples of producers, primary and secondary consumers, scavengers and decomposers. Laminated photos contained in the zoo case allow a group of students to position the organism in the correct food chain order and to build a food web, which is a more complete representation of the activity in an ecosystem.
The “Law of Competitive Exclusion” is explained using the phrase-“no two species eat the same thing at the same time in the same place”. On the African savannah biome the male giraffe eating from the highest level, the female giraffe eating from the branches in the middle and the gerenuk stretching to eat the lower branches is just one of many available examples.
An important concept in a discussion of ecology is adaptation, but this is sometimes difficult to explain at the elementary level. Evolutionary change is basic to survival, however in today’s politically correct society the term evolution is a concept that is sometimes emotionally charged. So we focus on the term adaptations to explain survival. We divide adaptations into three basic types: physiological, behavioral, and structural or PBS. PBS is a moniker that most children are familiar with because of the Public Broadcasting System on television. It is helpful in allowing them to remember the types of adaptations. During the zoo tour, this theme is effective because it can draw the group into a discussion about the most obvious adaptation. Behavioral and structural adaptations are fairly easy to identify.
A physiological adaptation (P) is generally what is going on inside the body. Examples can be found in the wonder net of the giraffe, the hibernation of the marmot and the body’s internal systems. The variations in digestion systems (ruminant, hindgut or cloaca) or the reproductive system (litter vs. single birth and altricial/precocial).
Behavioral adaptations (B) are explained as how the animal acts. What does it do? Examples could include migration, herding, swamping or diurnal vs. nocturnal activity.
Structural adaptations (S) are the easiest to identify on a zoo tour. It is the anatomy, generally what can be seen. The long legs of the zebra for running, compared with the short legs of the Rocky Mountain goat which are so important for balance. Or the webbed feet of the duck for swimming locomotion vs. the long toes of the condor for walking.
Camouflage is used as an example of a structural adaptation that benefits both predator and prey.
Adaptations do not always fit neatly into just one of the PBS categories. An elephant’s ear can be used to indicate aggression (behavior) but also is covered with thin skin that holds many blood vessels designed to cool the blood which flows through them (physiological). It is also important to stress that animals survive because of their adaptations. An animal does not and can not consciously adapt to survive. Advantageous adaptations give an organism a competitive edge in the struggle for food, space, the chance to reproduce and the ability to avoid predators. In addition, as habitats change, what was once an advantage could one day become a disadvantage. The animals and plants that survive to reproduce are the ones with the successful adaptations or variations.
After the slide presentation, the docent divides the class into three or four groups for some hands-on learning and discussion. We will now take a look at the tools that we use to reinforce the concepts that were discussed in the slides.
Ecology is defined as the study of interrelationships of organisms to one another and to their abiotic environment. A long definition that is fairly abstract. The method we developed to assist student’s travel from an abstract to a concrete level of understanding was a simple one – we used biofacts and other items, enclosed them in boxes, placed them in the lightest mobile carrier we could locate (a suitcase) and proceeded to the classroom. Educational processes are often dry lectures with little active participation by students. Our program requires all modalities of learning – visual, auditory and tactile involvement. The flexible program uses hands-on, interactive student group learning activities. This is a self/group discovery activity that allows learning through individual discovery or a team discussion discovery format. Our main concern was to make them multi-level, multi-sensory and appropriate for all levels of learning skills using material easily adapted to different age levels. We know it works well with docents – they were our initial trial subjects – and have had success in the classroom also. The noise level indicates an active learning process occurring.
The production of these kits was a simple one; we brainstormed for ideas about what concepts to cover and then what biofacts to include in each kit. We brought several kits with us for our presentation but wish to emphasize that you may do similar kits and adapt them for your particular concept usage. Our kits are restricted to Colorado ecology. We selected the following types of ecological adaptations and their concepts for our presentation – physiological, behavioral and structural. Each kit provides examples of these adaptations.
Kit A – Food Chains, Food Webs And Symbiosis
Discussion of food chains and food webs. Using the enclosed cards, identify and write out four chains and at least one food web. Begin by writing the biome for each food chain. Use the vocabulary words producers, primary consumer, secondary consumer, tertiary consumer, scavenger and decomposer. Include any symbiotic relationships.
Kit contains laminated direction page and cards with photographs of plants, animals and fungi/bacteria.
Kit B – A Rose By Any Other Name
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and perhaps survival. After observing animals and discovering specific adaptations, which enable a species to have a survival advantage within their habitats, man has designed tools for human use and improving his own survival.
Kit contains laminated direction page and a number of tools used by humans.
Kit C – Baby It’s Cold Out There!
Discussion of animal adaptations for winter survival. In Colorado, plants and animals have specific adaptations for winter survival.
Kit contains a laminated direction page and a number of animal cartoons depicting animals of Colorado and their adaptations.
Kit D – Species Feces
Discussion of physiological adaptations of animals’ digestive systems and what impact they have on their environment.
Kit contains a number of different animal fecal samples with laminated direction.