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Life Beyond the Fifty Yard Line
An ecological look at our back yard

By Mary Eldredge-Sandbo

Modified by Mary Eldredge-Sandbo from the textbook Biological Science An Ecological Approach . 1982. Fifth edition BSCS Green Version

Type of Entry:

  • Project -- an in depth study of micro ecosystems near the school.

Type of Activity:

  • Hands-on activity
  • Authentic assessment
  • Group/cooperative learning
  • Review/reinforcement
  • Inquiry

Target Audience:

  • Most applicable: Advanced biology
  • Also: Biology, Environmental studies, Special needs,

Notes to Teacher:

I use this project in Advanced Biology. In Biology, students learn the basic concepts of ecology. In the advanced class, they are given an opportunity, through this project, to put those concepts to work. Of course, they also learn more information, terminology, techniques and skill, but my primary goal is to keep it as �hands-on� as possible.

At the beginning, I give students an outline of everything that needs to be completed. With the exception of a few class activities, students are pretty much given the leeway to work at their own pace and in the order they feel is best. They like this and really take ownership of their work.

Students with learning disabilities excel when given the opportunity to choose the part of the project they want. For the same reason, the gifted and highly motivated students can do their very best, and then some, with this project.

At the completion of this unit, each group does a presentation of their work. It usually takes 15 minutes to a half hour per group. I encourage them to make their own visuals and teach the way they would like to be taught. Finally, the work of each group is displayed in the classroom for several days.

The main thing needed for this project is time. Although a nice, primitive study area would be fun to study, the students were amazed to see how much life is right in their own backyard. As long as an area can be found where plants are allowed to grow and there isn�t excessive daily human traffic, there is much to be discovered. We found such areas surrounding our football field. Expenses can be kept to a minimum if necessary by making most of the equipment. I have found this to be a very rewarding activity both for myself and for my students.

Required of students:

Students need to be willing to work with each other in their groups. This was the most important factor in determining the success, or lack thereof, of this project. Working with students having different interests and skills ensures a thorough finished product. In addition, students must take good lab notes every day, keeping track of what was observed, what was accomplished and all data that was collected. Keeping goals and deadlines also makes it easier to finish the project on time.

Preparation time needed:

Most of the preparation time is needed before the project is started in the classroom. The teacher must decide which activities will be performed, how they will be graded and how they will work into the overall curriculum of the course. If equipment must be made, that will take more time the first year, but then it will be ready for subsequent years. Time also must be taken to stake out the study areas and collect necessary equipment for the different lab activities.

Class time needed:

This activity is very flexible. I use just about every day for some aspect of this project for about one month. Several times a week, we go outside for a portion of the class period. Other days, students work on their project in the classroom. About one class period a week is spent on lecture and review of the topics being covered in lab. This activity can easily be stretched out or condensed, depending on the amount of information and data you want students to collect.


This activity takes an in depth look at micro ecosystems near the school. I start right away by going outside where each group is assigned a study area. They stake out and rope off their study area, do population counts and density studies. They construct a map of the whole area, collect plants and insects (one of each species and only if there are six others in the area), and mount and identify the organisms using keys. Invertebrates are also collected from the soil and litter in a Berlese Apparatus. Students identify the trophic levels, make a food web and pyramid and record information on a regular basis.

Since it is assumed that students have a working understanding of basic ecological concepts, lecture is kept to a minimum and interaction among team members is strongly encouraged. Students are given several evaluations throughout the project to determine level of understanding and progress. They also keep a lab journal which is graded upon completion of the project.


Question this activity helps students answer:

What are the niches and the interrelationships among organisms in this vicinity?


Materials needed: (Each group of 4-6 students will need the following:)

  • String and wooden stakes -to mark off study areas

  • Lab journals - to record data

  • Large tag board - to draw map of study area

  • Shovels or trowels - to collect plants, soil and litter

  • Plant presses (We made our own with two pieces of plywood, pieces of cardboard from boxes and belts/straps purchased at the second hand store)

  • Insect net

  • Formalin - to preserve invertebrates

  • Berlese apparatus
    (We made ours by taping an aluminum foil funnel to a vial with formalin in the bottom. The seam of the funnel was stapled and sealed with tape and steel wool was placed at the bottom of it. The apparatus was then placed under a 25 watt bulb. )

  • Zip lock bags - for collecting specimens

  • Identification guides

  • Tag board and clear contact paper - to mount plants

  • Pins and mounting frames - to mount insects

  • Wire circle 35.4 cm in circumference - for marking soil sampling site


First Steps:

  1. Teacher marks out one study area per group. Make the dimensions fairly uniform for each group, but more importantly, get a good variety of plants in each area. Ours are usually 5-7 square meters.

  2. On the first visit to the site, each group should decide on the quadrat sizes within their study area. These should be measured, marked off and recorded in lab journals.

  3. Do an initial survey looking for types of vegetation, evidence of animals and other biotic and abiotic factors.

  4. Make a large map of the area. The map should be to scale with a neat, color-coded key.

Study of plants:

  1. Collect a sample of leaves from trees and shrubs to be pressed and identified.

  2. Determine the types of smaller plants in each quadrat and record in journals.

  3. Make appropriate counts of smaller plants and record.

  4. Collect samples of smaller plants to be pressed and identified.

  5. In lab, use keys to identify plants.

  6. Press plants until dry, then mount and label.

Animals above the ground:

  1. Observe and record all animals (and evidence of animals observed in quadrats)

  2. Obtain a sampling of insects with net. Collect in a plastic bag to be identified and preserved. (If you catch lots of one insect, count and release as many extras as possible.)

  3. Mount and identify one of each insect netted. Insects should be identified by phylum, class and order. Give scientific and common name whenever possible.

  4. In lab, make a chart identifying mammals and birds that likely frequent your area and the evidence you found. If possible, pictures or drawings should be provided as well.

Animals below the ground:

  1. Pick one area where litter and soil will be collected.

  2. Collect loose litter from inside the circle and place in plastic bag.

  3. Insert shovel or trowel to a depth of 10 cm. remove a sample of soil and place in a plastic bag.

  4. Empty bag of litter on white paper. Shine a strong light on it and pick through with forceps. Put one of each organism in formalin to be identified later.

  5. Loosen the soil sample and place in Berlese Apparatus to be identified later.

  6. Using identification keys, identify the organisms collected. Include phylum and class on label and give order and scientific names when possible. Mount organisms if possible, or draw. Mounts and drawings should include label with collector�s name, date and place, as well as scientific classification.

Method of Assessment/Evaluation

  1. Because this is such a long project, I do two graded check-up quizzes. The first is done by the whole group and evaluates what has been done to the present. It tests their understanding of terminology and techniques used. The second quiz is done individually and requires students to utilize pertinent vocabulary in sentences relating to the investigation. They also write about what they are enjoying most, finding most frustrating and are most proud of in the activity.

  2. Each student is also required to complete a typed summary explaining the ecology of their study area and what they learned. Topics to stress are what was learned about the ecology of the area rather than the procedure. Some things I look for are: Explanation of trophic levels; organisms and their niches; relationships between producers; flow of energy; evidence of succession; discussion of boundaries - natural versus artificial; influence of humans; and techniques learned. Most importantly, I tell students I want to know what they have learned about the complexity of even the simplest of ecosystems and how this knowledge can affect one's decision making processes and priorities as well as what they might think about now that they hadn�t thought about before.

  3. At the completion of the project, each group is required to complete the following:
    • 40 points: Map of area
    • 25 points: Field notes (For group project, they are to compile the best of all notes, including dates of entries and procedures. They don�t need to duplicate materials handed in elsewhere.)
    • 30 points: Labeled mounts /drawings of insects and other invertebrates
    • 15 points: Food web depicting organisms in study area
    • 15 points: Written explanation of the food web
    • 30 points: Counts and densities of all organisms in neat, comprehensible form.
    • 30 points: Presentation of materials to class (Presentation is not just �show and tell� but should show ability to use words such as quadrats, energy pyramid, population density, stratification, boundaries, trophic levels, etc. in an easy to understand way. Students can use any visuals, transparencies and charts.)

Extension/Reinforcement/Additional Ideas

Take a day long field trip to an area less frequented by human and collect data on one day. Then, either do the whole project, or compare results to study area near school.

Do an analysis of soil, look at microorganisms and correlate findings to vegetation and other organisms.

Study an area with water -- do water studies in addition to, or instead of, the others outlined above.

This activity often stimulates interest in related careers. Invite a wildlife biologist, natural resource worker or other related professionals to class, or visit them where they work.

Have students do the study literally in their own back yard and do the class work in the labs.

As a whole class, study one large area and have groups break off to study their separate quadrats and correlate findings.

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