Teaching Ecology & Environmental Science Concepts in Early Childhood

Instructor: Kimberly Uptmor

Kimberly has a bachelor's degree in Secondary Education: Science and has master's in Curriculum and Instruction. Currently, she teaches 7th grade through college level classes.

When students learn about ecology and environmental science, they begin to appreciate the world better. This lesson explains the background, strategies, and activities used to teach the concepts.

Making a Difference in the World

Was there ever a moment in your life that you made a difference for someone? Maybe you gave up a spot in line for someone or visited a friend who was sick in the hospital. These moments may have given you a moment of happiness because you made a change in their life. Could you imagine giving that same feeling to a young scientist as they study ecology and environmental science? As educators, we can give that same feeling to each one of our students, especially through science.

Saving Our World

Ecology and environmental science pertain to nature and the interaction of organisms, plants or animals, within nature. The more students learn about our environment and Earth, the more they will appreciate it. Maybe one day, or even in your class, they will want to do something to save the Earth and protect the nature it holds. In this lesson, we will look at the background concepts, strategies to teach the science, and sample activities for ecology and environmental science.

Background in Ecology and Environmental Science

When it comes to teaching ecology and environmental science, it is important first to understand that concepts behind these two sciences in order to teach your students to the full potential and understand why the activities are important:

Nature contains many different ecosystems, which is a community of living plants and animals and nonliving objects that interact with one another within an environment, or surrounding. The study of the relationships and interactions of ecosystems is called ecology. When it comes to living, each living animal or plant depends on another animal or plant, a nonliving object, or both for food and shelter. Often, the ecosystem is described as a ''web of life'', where everything is stable if present. However, if there is change to the web, more than one plant or animal can be affected.

Because ecosystems are just a part of nature, the characteristics of that system can change if there are disruptions from within the system or outside the system. For example, the temperature within the environment can change making it difficult for some plants to survive. Sometimes, the plant or animal can adapt, or adjust, to the new surroundings. However, some animals cannot survive, which could result in extinction or nonexistent animals.

Students from grades K to 5th grade should be able to answer the following questions with concerns to Ecology and the Environment. These come from the Next Generation Science Standards. The first question is, ''How do organisms interact with the living and nonliving environments to obtain matter and energy?'' Younger ages should understand that animals survive off things around them, while plants depend on air, water, and soil. For older students, they should understand that animals and plants survive only in certain environments, especially ones that meet their needs. When there is a healthy environment, there are healthy animals and plants. When the environment is not healthy, animals and plants could have serious consequences.

The second question is, ''What happens to ecosystems when the environment changes? '' Both young and older students should understand that sometimes the environment can change, which could kill off the animals and plants within it. Unlike plants, animals could move to other locations or could adapt if changes are not drastic. However, if there is no livable environment, both may come to extinction.

Strategy to Teach Ecology

Younger students are naturally curious about the world, especially nature. Think about all the times you ate dirt to see if it was edible or watch squirrels play in the backyard. Giving students the opportunity to be hands-on with science enables them to experience and understand the objectives. For elementary science teachers, all it takes is a little guidance and structure to give students the objectives they need to learn about this subject.

One of the best strategies to use is inquiry-based learning, a type of active learning where questions guide the activities and discussion for the objective. To begin with inquiry-based learning, the teacher presents a question to the students. The teacher gives the students opportunities to see if they know the answer or solution to the question. Once all possible solutions are present, the teacher guides the students to perform an experiment, read a passage, or conduct research to see the correct answer. After evidence is gathered from the observations, reading, or research, the teacher and students write a conclusion to answer the question they brought up at the beginning of the lesson. This type of learning gives the students the opportunity to investigate on their own and find meaning in the objective.

Here is a sample of how teachers could use inquiry-based learning with the first question presented above:

-First, introduce the question, ''How do organisms interact with the living and nonliving environments to obtain matter and energy?''

-Second, give students time to suggest answers. Praise for answers that are close to the correct one. You may even put all their answers on the board and vote for one they think is close.

-Third, perform an experiment or complete a project that will allow students to make observations and conclude. Make sure they are hands-on and engaging. Check out the ones below.

-Fourth, when students have finished, have them come together and explain what they saw. Try to guide the students to the correct answer for that question. Once students answer it, writing the question, experiment, and answer down in a notebook is recommended.

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