What if your students don't show an immediate interest in exploring plants? "Our connections with the creatures who live in our garden provided the hook that eventually led my second language learners to want to explore plants and their flowers more closely," reports elementary school science resource teacher Brandyn Scully from Los Angeles, CA. "Let's face it, busy insects are a compelling draw for most kids," she adds.
In the school's garden laboratory, students collect, examine, and count the different creatures they encounter. As they discover new ones, they do population inventories; for instance, counting and documenting the number of ladybug eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults they find. "When we catch an insect, students explore and research its structures and functions, life cycle, and needs, then use that information as a basis for comparing other insects we find," says Brandyn. "Once students have 'met' an animal in this way, they are more inspired to retain the information, and they begin to build their own body of knowledge," she explains.
Brandyn notes that her students' insect inquiries have prompted observations of other environmental connections. For instance, they began to notice and predict when there would be a lack or an abundance of particular types of insects based on subtle seasonal or weather changes. "When we noticed fewer butterflies this spring, students inferred that the unusually cold weather might have been a factor," Brandyn explains.
By training their eyes on insects, Brandyn's youngsters eventually began to notice plants. For instance, because they spent so much time hunting for ladybugs, students began to hone in on the types of plants they seek out. Her keen observers were intrigued by the carpenter bees they discovered on sweet pea flowers. Noticing that the weight of a bee caused the flower to drop open, students began to wonder about what might draw insects to different flowers. "The kids were ripe with great questions and ideas, so I tried to follow their interests," says Brandyn. For instance, fourth graders were curious to find out if the insects they'd come to know well -- bees, carpenter bees, wasps, and butterflies -- had preferences for different flower colors. The class made a chart with insect names down the side and flower colors across the top, then worked individually to tally who visited which colors over time in different locations. "The one conclusion students drew that time was that bees seem to go for every color," she reports.
A month later on an overcast morning, students decided to repeat their experiment. "We were surprised to find only bees in the garden and they were only visiting sunflowers," says Brandyn. Her students realized that since spring flowers had faded, the garden was predominantly yellow. They wondered if more insects would show up by afternoon to visit other flowers. "We agreed that our data that day might have led us to think that bees prefer yellow flowers, but that we wouldn't have enough information to be sure about that after just one or two studies," explains Brandyn. Meanwhile, students' observations prompted a range of new questions: Which flowers have the most nectar? Do bees like those flowers best? How many different kinds of bees come to our garden? Do bees only like big flowers? Where do the bees go after they visit our flowers? As they discussed how they might answer some of their questions, the young scientists began to realize that they would need time to observe. They also understood that their conclusions might be incomplete because the garden was constantly changing.
"The students' focus and retention in the garden setting are much deeper than with any other instructional tool," says Brandyn. "And as they question, observe, and explore, I am seeing them increasing their comfort and ability to engage with the natural world," she adds.