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An Online Project - Comparing Terrestrial Ecosystems in Different States

By Marguerite A. Graham

(Online Project Support from AT&T Learning Network)

Type of Entry:

  • Project

Type of Activity:

  • Hands-on activity
  • Group/cooperative learning

Target Audience:

  • Biology
  • Advanced/AP Biology
  • Environmental studies

Notes to Teacher:

This project is best done while teaching a unit on ecology. Students need, as a prerequisite, information on biomes and soils so that they can see the significance and relevance of the activity.

I did this project through the AT&T learning Network. They will provide you with the schools in the different states to form a Learning Circle and the support to get started on an online project. Information on Learning Circles can be obtained on the Internet (http://www.att.com/education/lcguide/). A Learning Circle is usually 8-9 states. I was connected to eight states.

The key to success is to spend time in the beginning planning and organizing, as this is a cooperative activity. Failure in one team could affect the whole project. Take some time to emphasize the importance of meeting deadlines to the students.

A major task is to select a chief student coordinator who is competent at the computer. The coordinator's responsibilities include downloading the mail each day, placing printed copies in the respective team folders and deciding who would be responsible for putting the final project together.

Next divide the class in to groups of 2-3. Each team will be responsible for a specific state. They will be responsible for E-mailed requests for information on their project, as well as providing information to the participating school on their project.

Once the class is organized, go over the procedures for sending E-mail and ensure that at least one member of each team is familiar with the procedure. The hardest part of this project is getting organized so that it does not take up valuable teaching time. Access to several computers is not necessary. I did this project with just one computer for a class of twenty students. The project was completed in approximately 12 weeks. You need a month, using at least one class period a week, to get ready. After that I used one class period every two weeks to check on progress. Students came before and after school, and during their free periods, to use the computer, so the project did not interfere with regular class activities. For the soil tests, I used the La Motte Test Kit for Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium and pH. I also determined the physical components, water retention capabilities and the presence of microorganisms in the soil. The choice of tests can be decided based on the level of the students. These tests are easily obtained from any good lab manual. Students tested their home state's soils first as a class activity so that I could walk through the tests with them to ensure that when they are working independently, minimal supervision would be needed.

Student Requirements:

Students are responsible for E-mail requests, fulfilling the requirements from member states, soil tests, research papers, reporting data, maintaining a file folder of information pertaining to their state, and contributing to the final formal lab report.


This project was designed to be used in the existing AP Biology curriculum, but could be used in any upper level Biology or Environmental class. The common soil analysis lab is changed to an online project where students examine not only their own soils, but the soils and climates of other states. This cooperative activity makes learning fun. It engages and motivates the students by giving them responsibility. It also develops the skills of working together as a team and shows them a real life application of computer technology in the world today. The project which was made possible through the AT&T Learning Network, which provided the initial guidance and is a good way for teachers to start an online project.


In this project students will investigate the similarities and differences in soils from different states with an analysis of its physical and chemical properties. Data were correlated with data on climate, geology, vegetation and land use from each participating state.


Introductory Activities:

Students read about biomes and, the importance of biotic and abiotic factors (especially soil and climate). During the discussion, the students make predictions about the soils and vegetation of their participating state. At the end of this, the students in each team turn in a report on soil and its role in the environment for background information. The best report is selected as the introduction for the formal lab report.

Cooperative Teams

Testing of Home State Soils

Students are provided with two soil samples, one each collected from a woody and a grassy site. They complete tests on chemical and physical components as well as on micro-organisms. Record individual team data. During class discussions, the class data of the sponsoring state is recorded on the master data table in the classroom. This data table has columns for the results from each participating state, Data are filled in after students have received and analyzed the soil from the participating state.

E-Mail Questionnaire to Participating States The following was the request sent to each participating state by each team. This is important to maintain a constant standard. Example of Request : Our first request is soil samples from your area. Below are the instructions:

Soil Collection:

  • Collect 2 samples of soil - one from wooded area, one from grassy area.

  • Precaution : make sure the areas have not received any fertilizer.

  • Remove any surface litter, grass etc. before the sample is taken.

  • Collect the soil from a depth of 6" -1ft. deep

  • Collect several small samples from the area and mix together to get an average sample.

  • Collected total should be 1 sandwich bag full from each area. Each sample should be clearly marked with location.

To Be Sent With Soil Samples:

  • On day of collection - Note : weather conditions, temperature. humidity, rainfall- This can be obtained from the newspaper.

  • Send this information with the samples

  • Write date of collection

  • Describe the area where the soil was collected. If you know some of the plants in the vicinity , write them down and send with the sample

Weekly Weather Bulletin:

Each week ( for 3 weeks only) send us the average Temperature, Rainfall, and Humidity that is affecting the area where your school is located. You can obtain this from the newspaper.

We hope to use this to compare and contrast the weather in our state with participating schools.

General Information

  • Is there an unusual environmental factor operating in your area that might affect the soil and vegetation, such as tornadoes , hurricanes , floods ?

  • How was the soil in the area formed? ( include the geology )

  • What is the natural vegetation of the area?

  • What is the main agricultural and land use of the area?

Summarizing the Project

This is the exciting part, as the students get to see and share the information they have received from member states. It might take 2 -3 class periods, analyzing the data and having the students volunteer to do different jobs for the presentation of the data.The final formal report was put together by the chief student coordinator. The project was assembled and displayed on project boards at the school's science fair. This project brought out aspects of my students that I had never seen before. They learned first hand the importance of meeting deadlines and being flexible when working as a team. The excitement and pride they exhibited at the fair made me determined to do online project; where every one gets a chance to shine . Through this online activity my students had an opportunity to explore new schools, states and ideas without ever leaving the classroom.

Method of Assessment/Evaluation

Since this was a cooperative project, a check sheet was set up for each group. They received a grade if they completed the assignment. For example : maintaining a good file folder, doing the soil tests, filling in the Master Data Table, meeting the dead - lines set. A major grade for each team was the research paper on soils and the report about their participating state unusual environmental featuresgenerated from information, that they obtained through their E-mail questionnaire and their own research.

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