The University of Montana  
UM Home UM A to Z Index Search UM
Ecologists Educators and Schools:Partners in GK-12 Education


Use the table below to locate investigations and activities to use your schoolyard to study ecology.

Title Inquiry Questions Ecological Themes Target Grade Level
A Plethora of Pollinators What is pollination and who are pollinators? Do all pollinators look the same? Do all pollinators act the same? Flowers have suites of characteristics (shape, color, and odor) to attract pollinators, and pollinators have suites of adaptations for exploiting the food provided by flowers. These characteristics have coevolved because flowers benefit from the advantages of crosspollination and pollinators benefit from the food rewards. 3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12
A Tour of Soils How many soil types can be found in the schoolyard Diversity of soil types results in diversity of plants 1, 2
Adaptations: How do plant and animal adaptations from the tropics compare to organisms from here in Montana? What is an adaptation? How do adaptations benefit an organism? Natural Selection, Adaptation 5
An Introduction to dichotomous keys and classification: A great use for a classroom pet What are characteristics that can be used to group similar objects and organisms? How can characteristics of an organism be used to create a dichotomous key? How can a dichotomous key be used to identify an unknown object or organism? What are some common characteristics of different groups of animals (or plants)? Classification, description, diversity of life 4
Animals Prepare for the Winter Is weather important to animals? Do animals think about the weather or prepare for the weather? Weather, habitat, ecological connectivity 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Aquatic Macroinvertebrate Art Ask the students if they know what the words “aquatic macroinvertebrate” mean. What is a dichotomous key? How do we use a dichotomous key to help us identify aquatic macroinvertebrates? What makes an insect an insect? Ask students if they can remember the insect life cycle starting with egg: Egg, larva, (pupa), and adult. Does pond water or stream and river water contain more dissolved oxygen? Why? Do you expect to find different species of macroinvertebrates in ponds and rivers or streams? Water quality, biological indicators, pond and riparian habitat. 2, 3, 4, 5
Assessing the Effects of Insects Where do insects go in the winter? Do biocontrol insects have an impact on seed production in knapweed? Over wintering strategies of insects Effectiveness of biocontrol on knapweed seed production Data collection and interpreting data 3,4,5,6
Beneficial Burns? Are fires always a bad thing? What are some of the potential benefits of fires in ponderosa pine-Douglas-fir forest ecosystems? Fire ecology, intermediate disturbance hypothesis. 4,5,6,7,8
Bird of the Week What characteristics are useful in identifying birds? What are some of the birds found in our schoolyard? What are some of the interesting Montana birds? Being able to identify the creatures in an ecosystem is fundamental to teaching ecological concepts. 3,4
Brewing Rootbeer What is your hypothesis for each of the treatments? What is the purpose of the yeast? What would happen if we placed a lot of yeast in the bottles? What if no yeast was used? Yeast are able to fill several niches due to their different respiration systems. Anaerobic conditions select for only certain types of microorganisms. 5
Busy Little Bees: Insects Working Hard in Your Schoolyard. How are the plants and insects in your schoolyard interacting? How do the shapes of flowers impact which insects you might see in your schoolyard? Plantanimal interactions, form and function, mutualisms 1,2
Classification using insects How do taxonomists classify organisms? What are some common characteristics of insects? Observation, Classification 5,6,7,8
Classroom Mark-Recapture with Crickets (with investigation and overhead masters) How do we estimate the size of animal populations in the wild? Population ecology, population estimation, and sampling. 9, 10, 11, 12
Comparing Gravels How do rounded river rocks, angular river rocks, and glacial till differ? Why? The physical environment directly affects ecosystems and habitats. Earth processes contribute to the continual change in the physical environment. 4,5
Composting 101: It’s the Microbes What is composting and what causes decomposition? Nutrient cycling 1, 2, 3, 4
Creating a miniature Grand Canyon: A demonstration of soil erosion by water. What causes soil erosion? Conservation of soil 1, 2
Determining Soil Texture Using a Dichotomous Key Is all soil the same? Are different types of soils found in different places? Does the soil differ from one area of the schoolyard to another? Soil science, classification 5,6
Discovering Plate Boundries Where are the Earth’s plate boundaries? What processes occur at plate boundaries? How are plate boundaries classified? Physical ecology. Shaping landscapes through time. 7
Do Bacteria (Microorganism) Enhance Plant Growth? Are there microorganisms that limit plant growth? Are there microorganisms that enhance plant growth? If a microorganism does enhance plant growth, can all plant species take advantage of this? How would a microorganism enhance plant growth (i.e. what would the bacteria do for the plant)? If a microorganism does help plants grow is there a cost to the plant? That some microorganisms are beneficial to plant growth and form symbiotic relationships with certain species of plants. The relationship between plant and microorganism can impact where certain plants are found. 5
Echolocation Marco Polo How do bats use echolocation to navigate and capture prey? Observation skills development, sensory adaptations and other adaptations in nocturnal bats. 1,2,3,4,5
Ecological Footprint What is an ecological footprint, and what is your ecological footprint? Everything is connected, and whatever you do has an impact on the world around you. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Ecologists Make Careful Observations! A Color-Wise Scavenger Hunt How many natural objects can students find in a given series of colors? How closely can the students match the objects to the colors? What is the most interesting object that the students can find? What is the most surprising color that the students can find in a natural object? The first and most important step in any ecological inquiry is making very careful observations. You can find an amazing diversity of natural objects, often in surprising colors, almost anywhere outdoors; you just have to look! Bits of eggshell, a feather, the exoskeleton of a beetle, tiny pebbles, seedpods, and flower petals are just a few objects you might find in a rainbow of colors. The skill of observation is fundamental for any ecologist, young or old! K,1,2,3,4,5,6
ECOS Olympics: Discerning Data! What are five “phenophases” of Common Dandelions? Do the phenophases of Common Dandelions vary between sites? Plant phenology. 1,2,3,4,5,6
ECOS Olympics: Fair Test Quest! What is a fair test? How can weather affect plant phenlology? Can weather variables be used in a fair test of plant phenology? Plant phenology. 1,2,3,4,5,6
ECOS Olympics: Observation Challenge! What are the five colors of prey camouflage? How many prey of each color are hidden in the habitat? Animal camouflage. 1,2,3,4,5,6
ECOS Olympics: Pursuing Predictions! In 10 minutes, students must think about habitats on their schoolyards, think about where they might find insects, make connections and predict where they might find the greatest diversity of insects in their schoolyard. Insect diversity. 1,2,3,4,5,6
Ecosystems are Everywhere! What is an ecosystem? What things make up an ecosystem? What sorts of organisms does an ecosystem need? What does an organism need to survive? Parts of an ecosystem, interactions between organisms. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Effect of Acid Rain on the Ability of Soil Microbes to Decompose Organic Matter How does changing environmental parameters influence essential processes such as nutrient cycling. Nutrient cycling, environmental change 9, 10, 11, 12
Egg-stream Shapes Are all eggs shaped the same? Does an egg’s shape affect how it rolls? Why would egg shape matter? Egg shape can be an adaptation in birds. Different nest sites have different ecological consequences, and certain egg shapes may have evolved in response to those consequences. 1,2
Energy in Suspension How much energy is required to put clay, silt, sand, and gravel into suspension in water? Effect of erosion on aquatic and riparian habitats 4,5
Estimation By Sampling How can the number of trees in an area be estimated by sampling? Sampling is a fundamental tool used by ecologists in every kind of research 8
Feeding the Hungry Stoneflies Where are stoneflies? What food source does a hungry stonefly prefer? Why do certain foods taste better to the stonefly? How do stoneflies help the rest of the river? What eats the stoneflies? Stoneflies are an important link in the food webs of healthy streams and rivers. 5
Fishes of Sleven’s Island How does the morphology of fish relate to the habitat in which they are found? Aquatic ecology, niche partitioning, morphological adaptations. 9, 10, 11, 12
Float or Sink? 1. Will cold water float or sink in warm water? 2. Which is densest and least dense between plain water, salt water, and rubbing Water density’s effect on lake and ocean ecosystems, as well as on global and regional climate. 3
Foraging and Finding Food What does an Orchard Mason Bee eat? Are all flowers available at the same time? How does flower availability affect Orchard Mason Bees? What does a map of Orchard Mason Bee habitat on your schoolyard look like? How suitable is the schoolyard to the life cycle of Orchard Mason Bees? Different plants flower at different times of the season. Flower availability affects species of pollinators that rely on nectar and pollen for food. The Orchard Mason Bee breeding cycle is highly dependent on the availability of flowers; females need access to nectar for their own maintenance, and to pollen to provision their eggs. Quality habitat may depend on a diversity of flowers juxtaposed so that food is available throughout the breeding season 5,6
Geologic Framework of Missoula’s Ecoregions How does Missoula Valley’s geologic history relate to its ecological distribution? Physical controls on ecological distribution. 6,7,8
Go Big or Stay Home? Simulation of cutthroat trout life history strategies as a roll of the dice. Why do trout, salmon, and other fishes have variable life history strategies? Why do some fish from one population migrate and others stay in their natal (home) stream? Trout life history, population biology and ecology, ecological modeling. 5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12
Go With the Flow: Sediments up against the Dam Which grain sizes move with the river water? When a dam is built across a river, where does the sediment go? Why is this good or bad? Sedimentation and the effects of dams on river ecosystems. 1,2
Growing Borax Snowflake Crystals What are crystals? How are crystals formed? geology/crystals K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Hamburger Habitat - Microbiology of Foods What are bacteria? Where do bacteria grow? Do you think there are bacteria in food? Why do we cook our food? What type of food do you think has the most bacteria? Why…what would cause that? Bacteria are everywhere but they require a specific set of environmental conditions to grow. 5
Hopscotch Migration How and where do bird migrate? What other factors influence bird migration? Winter Ecology/ Migration/ Birds/ Adaptations 6, 7, 8
Insect Needs and Feeds Do insects eat plants? What are they eating? (Can plant-eating insects be helpful?) Insects have needs, such as food and space, that plants provide. c. General Goal: To learn about the life cycles of several holometabolous insects (insects that completely change life forms) used as biological controls and to begin to understand that insects are often beneficial (e.g., as biological controls and pollinators). 1,2
Insect Needs and Insect Feeds Do insects eat plants? What are they eating? (Can planteating insects be helpful?) Insects have needs, such as food and space, that plants provide. 1,2
Investigating Use of Biocontrol Agents to Control Spotted Knapweed Are biocontrol agents (insects) present in spotted knapweed plants in the schoolyard? What species of insects are present? Where in the plant do they live, and how do they help control noxious weeds? Do we need to release more insects this spring and summer to control spotted knapweed? Density and distribution of organisms. Use of biocontrols to control invasive weeds. Sampling and hypothesis testing. Sustainable population concepts. 5
Is that an insect? What physical characteristics do you look for to identify an animal as an insect? What is one physical characteristic that you look at to identify different insects orders? Observation, Description, Characteristics of insects K,1,2,3
Isolation of Microbes from the Environment Where do microorganisms grow? Are there areas where microorganisms will not grow? How does the surface of an area influence microorganism growth? Microorganisms are everywhere in the environment. Certain surfaces will maintain greater diversity of microorganisms (i.e. Soil vs. Bathrooms). 5
Knapweed in the Web What are food webs? Can you provide examples of local food webs? Can food webs be altered by the introduction of non-native species? Students learn about a local Missoula, Montana example of a food web altered dramatically by the introduction of exotic species. 2, 3, 4, 5
Looking for Larvae: Collecting Data on Overwintering Insects Where do insects go in the winter? Do insects live in the knapweed (in your schoolyard, at a local park?) Over wintering strategies of insects. Data collection. 1,2
Lunar Ecology Design an animal adapted to the moon’s environment. Adaptation, energy cycling. 3, 4, 5
Mapping the Outdoor Discovery Core (ODC) at Lewis and Clark School How do we make a basic map of the schoolyard? Stress importance of mapping to science. Lewis and Clark made detailed maps of their journey; scientists need maps to be able to locate specific areas. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Microclimate in the Outdoor Classroom What is microclimate? How much variation in microclimate exists in the outdoor classroom? What biotic and abiotic factors can explain this variation? Microclimate diversity can explain and be explained by biological diversity. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Mineral Scavenger Hunt What daily objects do you use every day that come from minerals? What are some objects in the classroom that come from minerals? What minerals did these objects come from? Minerals are the building blocks of rocks. Rocks and their associated tectonic setting provide the broad framework for ecosystems and habitats. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Mystery Scat describe the ecology of this animal through dissection of its scat. diet, habitat, scientific method 5
Not too Hot, Not too Cold: The Effects of Temperature on Soil Bacteria How does temperatures affect bacterial growth? Do different bacteria grow at different temperatures? Is there a temperature where nothing grows? Bacteria (like all living things) are heavily influenced by the conditions of their environment. 4,5
Phases of matter: Understanding the chemistry behind water quality. Inquiry Questions: How are solutions made? What is dissolved in our water? What does water quality really mean? Understanding the solubility of compounds in water and how this impacts water quality in the environment 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Phases of the Moon Why does the moon go through a cycle? How can we tell what phase the moon is in? How does the moon affect tides? How does the lunar cycle affect nocturnal predators and prey? 3
Phenology of Flowers Do all plants flower at the same time? Are all flowers on a plant at the same stage of development? How long will species flower? Does weather impact flowering? Flower phenology varies across species, and this variation can affect the pollinators that are dependent upon them for food. In turn, without pollinators, flower reproduction can be affected. Abiotic factors, such as weather, play a crucial role in this interaction between flowers and their pollinators. 3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12
Pipe Cleaner Animal Camouflage What is camouflage? How is color important for animal camouflage? Is the distance you are away from an animal important for how camouflaged it appears? Camouflage is an important adaptation for predators and prey. 4
Plant And Pollinator Adaptations Why do plants produce flowers? Why are flowers attractive? Do all flowers attract pollinators equally well? What attracts pollinators to certain flowers? What adaptations do pollinators have to find flowers? Flowering plants and pollinators have co-evolved. Flowers have suites of characteristics (shape, color, and odor) to attract pollinators with some probability that they will visit other flowers of the same species, and pollinators have suites of adaptations for exploiting the food rewards provided by flowers. 7, 8
Plant Identification at the Lewis & Clark Outdoor Discovery Core How are plants identified and classified? Learning basic life-forms (tree, shrub, forb, and graminoid) and parts of plants: root, stem, leaves, inflorescence (the flowering part of plant); also, some basic botanical terms will be shared with the students. Dichotomous key 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Plant Identification in the Schoolyard using a Dichotomous Key What types of plants are found in the schoolyard? Classification and plant identification 5,6
Plants on the move-testing wind-dispersed seeds Which types of seeds are the best moving on the wind? How do plants move to new places? Diversity of life-history strategies How do we test adaptations? 5
Playground Food Webs Where do all Living Things get their Energy? What is a food web? What does it look like? How are living things at my schoolyard connected in a food web? What is meant by the terms: producer, consumer, herbivore, carnivore, omnivore, and scavenger? Every living thing gets its energy from the sun All living things are linked to each other in the energy cycle, and not just in a simple chain (food web) 6, 7, 8
Pollen Grain Reference Collection How do you prepare dried plant specimens? Identifying pollen, observation. 9,10,11,12
Sampling Safari How to biologists accurately count organisms? How to estimate population size? sampling design, population monitoring, population increase/decline, field biology in practice 9, 10, 11, 12
Saving Klondike and Snow: How Scientists Rescued 2 Baby Polar Bears Why did the scientists have to make a special formula for the baby polar bears? Why did they have to make a guess, or a hypothesis, about what ingredients to include in the formula? What ingredients did they include in the first formula?/What was their first hypothesis, or best guess, about what should be in the first formula? Scientists use the scientific method (making and testing hypotheses) to solve problems. K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Schoolyard Microclimates How much does temperature vary on small scales in the schoolyard? Microhabitat and microclimate variation. Animal adaptations to cold weather include behavior such as choosing suitable microhabitats. 5
Scratching Your Head Over Itchy Weeds: A Population Activity What is a population of knapweed/cheatgrass? How can we estimate population size of a plant population? Population ecology, species interactions, and sampling. 9, 10, 11, 12
So Many Soils, Why are They Different? How is soil formed? What factors impact the type of soil present in a particular location? Soil formation and differentiation. 4,5
Stories from the herbarium: Introduction to ethnobotany How have local plants been used by aboriginal peoples? Biodiversity, ethnobotany, seasonality, habitat diversity 3,4
Sussex School Spider Investigation Form hypotheses about what types of spiders are found in the schoolyard and where in the schoolyard they will be found. By surveying spiders in the schoolyard, students will gain an understanding of the diversity of the resident spiders and their specific habitat requirements. This will help the students to understand the necessity of different habitats to be conducive to diversity. 4, 5
Tackling Taxonomy: Which one of these is not like the others? Why do we group things? How do we group things? What characteristics can we use to group similar organisms? Why is grouping and classifying of living organisms a crucial part of science? Developing naturalist skills, such as observation, grouping, classification, and identification. 3,4,5,6,7,8
Testing Hypotheses about plant diversity What area of the schoolyard contains the most different type of plants? What is the average number of plants found in each area of the schoolyard? What types of plants are found in the schoolyard? Plant diversity can vary over small scales, and can be influenced by topography, land use, etc. 4
The Benefits of Soil Organic Matter (aka “The Radish Party”) What makes a soil “good” for plant growth? What are the functions of soil? Soil conservation/ beginning soil ecology 1, 2
The Expert Naturalist: Experience Through Observing (A Treasure Hunt) What is a naturalist? What can we find in our local ecosystems? In looking closely at specific elements of the ecosystem, do we see things we would otherwise have missed? What type of diversity do we see? Are you surprised with the amount of diversity? Naturalist Skills: Obtaining information on an area (ecosystem) through observation and investigation 3,4,5,6,7,8
The Trees in Our Schoolyard: A Growing Library of Information. What species of trees do we have in our schoolyard? What is the average height and circumference of each species? What is the average age? ... Different trees grow at different rates and have different requirements. Tree rings can tell us about trees. 4,5,6
To Bee or Not To Bee What is an insect life cycle? Do all insects have similar life cycles? What is the life cycle of the Orchard Mason Bee? What are the needs of each of the stages in the mason bee’s life cycle? Different phases of the mason bee life cycles have different requirements for food and shelter. The timing of these different stages can be adaptations to the insects’ environment. 1,2
Tracking Mysteries 1. How do animals make different track patterns? 2. Can you figure out what an animal was doing when it made a track? 3. How did a group of animals interact to create certain track patterns? Tracking, animal movement, and interactions between animals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Trees Are Homes What is habitat? Does our schoolyard provide habitat for any animals? Do trees provide food or shelter for any animals you can name? Students will be introduced to the concept of habitat and investigate their own schoolyard habitat for signs that trees are homes. K, 1
Water Bottle Rockets: an Exploration of Newtonian Physics What water to air ratio is needed to achieve maximum height? How do Newton’s laws of motion explain and influence a rocket’s flight? What forces keep a rocket from reaching maximum height? How are rockets designed to overcome these limitations? How do laws of physics apply to the field of ecology? Are there fundamental laws of ecology? Why or why not? 5
What in the world do insects see? Do insects see the same way humans see? What do insects see? Why might insect and human eyes see differently? Our understanding of ecological relationships is affected by our perceptions of the world. 1,2
What Is This Beak For? How does beak form define beak function? How are beak differences adaptive for exploiting different food sources? Adaptation; Food Specialists vs. Generalists 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
What is Winter What does winter really mean? Winter Ecology, Senescence, Physiology 4,5,6,7,8
What You See and What You Don't What do you see, hear, smell, touch in your schoolyard? observation; patterns in nature 1,2,3,4,5,6
Where do I belong? : An Introduction to the Use of Dichotomous Keys Why do scientists need to classify things? How do scientists classify things? How can we use the physical characteristics of living things to help us identify them in the field? What characteristics can we use to group similar organisms? How can these characteristics be used to create a dichotomous key? Observation, classification, identification, and an understanding of why each of these steps are so crucial to science. 3,4,5,6,7,8
Where is Knapweed successful? What abiotic variables contribute to the success of the invasive species Spotted Knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) Adaptation, invasive species, microhabitats 5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12
Who is in your schoolyard? 1. What do the tracks of different animal species look like and how can you collect tracks in your schoolyard? 2. What animal species use your schoolyard in the wintertime? 3. Do different animal species use different habitats in your schoolyard? Tracking and habitat use by different animals species. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Who Rules the Schoolyard? Natives vs. Exotics What is a weed? What is a native plant? Why are natives important? Why do we try to eliminate exotics? What do exotics do to our native plants and natural ecosystems? Why do we try to protect these native ecosystems and the elements within them? Looking at the impact of exotics on the natural landscape of the Missoula Valley. This topic is especially relevant to the properties surrounding our schoolyards. 7,8,9,10,11,12
Why are There Seasons? Why are there seasons? Seasonality is the driving force behind the majority of ecological cycles on the earth. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Why is the Sky Blue? Why is the sky blue? Why are sunrises/sunsets often red/orange? Weather/atmosphere, light spectrum 5,6,7,8,9
Winter Animal Adaptations: What Body Shape Stays Warmest? What body shape loses heat faster, flat or round? Winter Animal Adaptations K, 1, 2, 3
Winter Entomology Investigation What are insects? How do insects survive the winter? Where can we find insects during winter months? Adaptation, Survival, Community Ecology 5

The ECOS program is sponsored by the University of Montana's Division of Biological Sciences, and the College of Forestry and Conservation.

Carol Brewer Program Director, Division of Biological Sciences Paul Alaback Program Co-Director, College of Forestry and Conservation

######### Funded by the National Science Foundation
ECOS is supported by the GK-12 Program of the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.