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Prairie Fieldwork Unit

Denise Marie Sobieski

Type of entry:

  • unit outline

Type of activity:

  • hands-on activity
  • inquiry lab
  • authentic assessment
  • group/cooperative learning
  • field work

Target audience:

  • Environmental Studies, most applicable
  • Life Science
  • Advanced/AP Biology
  • Biology
  • Special needs
  • Special education
  • Other special needs

Background information:

What question does this activity help students to answer?

  • What is a prairie and how are they managed?

Notes for teacher:

  • Discuss the possibility of finding poisonous plants, such as poison ivy.
  • See list of resources provided.
  • Unit can be adapted to fit level and interest of students.
  • Prairie remnants are often found in old cemeteries and rocky hilltops.
  • Unit assumes some knowledge of how to use a taxonomic key or it can be taught within the unit.
  • Work gloves are helpful to prevent blistering from removing exotics.
  • Fall is the best time for picking prairie seeds. If this unit is done in the springtime, activities can be modified to fit the season.
  • The lessons can be modified to suit the needs of special populations.

Required of students:

  • Students need to dress appropriately for outdoor fieldwork.
  • Let teacher know of any plant, bee, or other allergies.

Preparation time needed

This will vary depending upon availability of resources, teacher familiarity with material, and accessibility of a prairie in the area.

Class time needed:

Ten to twenty class periods, depending upon level of mastery desired.

Abstract of Activity:

The key objectives for this activity are to expose students to the prairie environment and to engage them in prairie management activities. Students begin their exposure to the prairie via an observation activity, and then go on to read and study some basic background information about prairies. Small cooperative groups can be successfully used in the prairie management activities. Before they can begin participating in any of these management activities, the students will learn how to identify several prairie plants in two ways: 1.) using a pictorial field guide, and 2.) using a taxonomic key. Using the identification skills they have learned, students will pick prairie seeds from those plants available for picking. Depending upon the length of time spent on the unit, seeds can be planted, scattered, and/or given to or sold to the community. In addition, students will use several means to remove nonnative plant species. Students will participate in and learn the importance of managing native plant communities.


Materials needed

  • Reading material about prairies. A good one is Prairie Primer by Stan Nichols and Lynn Entine, possibly available from the University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
  • Pictorial identification book for prairies. Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie:The Upper Midwest is my preference. Sylvan Runkel and Dean M. Roosa are the authors. It is published by Iowa State University Press, 1989.
  • Taxonomic key for plant identification. Your choice will depend on area of the country. Spring Flora of Wisconsin by Norman C. Fassett and Olive S. Thompson can be used for states near Wisconsin. The University of Wisconsin Press is the publisher.
  • See resource list provided for additional information.
  • Buckets or paper bags for picking prairie seeds.
  • If planting prairie seeds, soil and flats with an adequate light source are needed. Recommended reading is Harold W. Rock's Prairie Propagation Handbook printed by the Wehr Nature Center, Whitnall Park, in Milwaukee County.
  • Work gloves and a tool for girdling trees to remove nonnative species.


Day 1
Introduce unit with a brief discussion of prairies. Take students to prairie site. Ask students to record observations, do some creative writing, and/or produce drawings in an environmental journal. Stress quality of observations and awareness of the characteristics of the prairie.

Day 2 & 3
Students will read prairie information and answer study questions. Discuss the reading and study questions. Use pictures and prairie plant herbarium sheets (if available) as a demonstration.

Day 4
Students will use pictorial field guides on prairie to identify plants in the field. First demonstrate how to use the guides. Knowledge of basic plant structure is needed. Start students off with only a few plants, then add more plants to be identified later. Expect students to be able to identify on sight several of the common plants. Native and nonnative plants need to be identified. Note: during all work on the prairie, students should continue their observations, especially looking for insects.

Day 5
Students will use a taxonomic key to identify the same plants in the field that were identified the previous day. It may be necessary to review how to use a taxonomic key. Be sure to compare the two methods of plant identification.

Day 6-9
Now that students are able to identify the plants, they are ready to pick the seeds that will be used later in other activities, such as reseeding an area of the prairie. In this way, students are assessed as they pick the seeds. Note which students have done their homework and know the required plants. It is important that students pick the correct seeds and place them in their buckets or bags. Great care should be taken not to include exotic species.

Day 10-12
Students will be taught several nonnative plant removal techniques, such as tree girdling. Removal of the unwanted plants by pulling them out by hand is an often used technique. Mowing is another technique used, but your ability to do this will depend upon the availability of a mower. Avoid using any chemicals. This might be a good time to also discuss the pros and the cons of the use of herbicides in the management of natural areas. If possible, set up an experiment. For example, what is the best mowing and/or weed pulling strategy for permanent exotic removal?

Day 13
A good wrap-up activity is to have a mini-prairie day and invite other classes and/or the community. Students will prepare a "guided tour" and also make signs for the various plants they learned. This can be made into a cooperative group project. Be careful that the area does not get damaged by too many people!!! Use trails for large numbers of people.

Method of Evaluation/Assessment

There are several ways to assess the learning of the students. They are listed below:

1. Use a written quiz and class discussion to assess mastery of the reading material.

2. A practical quiz, written or oral, on the identification of the plants is necessary before students engage in prairie seed picking. This is best done out in the field. Stations can be set up or an oral exam is another option. Observe students as they work in the field.

3. Observe students in the field as they undertake the prairie management activities. Ask individual students questions as you do this.

4. Assess the quality of the mini-prairie day festival project and the cooperation in the group. Evaluate feedback from community members verbally or with a survey.

Extension/Reinforcement/Additional Ideas

There are many extensions and additional activities that could be done during this unit. They are listed below.

1. An experiment can be set up to determine which strategies are best for permanently removing the exotic species. This would require assessment for several years and observations made throughout the year.

2. A prairie burn is an important management technique. Set up a burn with the local prairie group or state department of natural resources. Community involvement is a plus.

3. There are many seed planting activities that could be performed during this unit. Experiments could be set up to determine which methods of seed treatment produce the best germination.

4. For an integration idea, students could set up their own little businesses where they sell some product from their work on the prairie. Some ideas for products to sell are: seed packets, prairie plants grown from seeds, cards made from pressed prairie flowers with plant information on the back, and bookmarks and place mats made from pressed prairie flowers.

A list of resources has been provided. Some of these sources have been mentioned already in the lesson.


  • Ahenhoerster, Robert and Wilson, Trelen. Prairie Restoration for the Beginner. North Lake, WI:Prairie Seed Source, 1981.
  • Curtis, John. Vegetation of Wisconsin:An Ordination of Plant Communities. University of Wisconsin Press, 1971.
  • Dieckelman, John and Schuster, Robert. Natural Landscaping:Designing with Native Plant Communities. McGraw-Hill, 1982.
  • Fasset, Norman C. Grasses of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Press, 1951.
  • Fasset, Norman C. and Thompson, Olive S. Spring Flora of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Press, 1976
  • Knindscher, Kelly. Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie:An Ethnobotanical Guide. University Press of Kansas, 1987.
  • Murray, Molly Fifield. Prairie restoration for Wisconsin Schools:A Guide to Restoration from Site Analysis to Management.. University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, 1993.
  • Newcomb, Lawrence. Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. Little, Brown, 1977.
  • Nichols, Stan and Entine, Lynn. Prairie Primer. University of Wisconsin Extension, 1978 (out of print:check with University Press fro reprinting information).
  • The Peterson Field Guide Series. Houghton Mifflin.
  • Rock, Harold W. Prairie Propagation Handbook. Wehr Nature Center, Whitnall Park, Milwaukee County, WI, 1971.
  • Runkel, Sylvan T. and Roosa, Dean M. Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie:The Upper Midwest.. Iowa State University Press, 1989.
  • Smith, Robert J. and Smith, Beatrice S. The Prairie Garden:70 Native Plants You Can Grow in Town or Country. University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.

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