Hiking in the mountain woods has really gotten me thinking about he importance of biodiversity. Not that I don’t always think it is important, of course! Yesterday I saw 4 types of moss and 2 types of lichen growing on one small area of a rock. Amazing. I can’t get enough of these moss and lichen lately. The colors and textures are a feast for the eyes!

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Biodiversity’s importance is one of the most valuable topics we can teach our students when educating for ecological literacy. It is fantastic for interdisciplinary learning because it can be applied to so many aspects of life from flora and fauna to environments, ecosystems, and even genetics. Biodiversity is a noun defined as “the variety of life in the world or in a particular habitat or ecosystem.” That may sound simple, but when applied to systems thinking, the web suddenly gets very complex. Especially when, if you are trying to count the total number of species living in a particular area, you factor in all the microorganisms we can’t see without a microscope! You can begin to understand how E.O. Wilson said he could study one handful of leaf litter for his entire life!

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The more diverse an area is, the healthier and more resilient it is. When looking at genetic biodiversity, the greater the genetic biodiversity the more disease resistant an organism is and better adaptable to change. While genes are what make a zinnia a zinnia and a hamster a hamster, variation within genetics is what accounts for differences in species and variations like eye color in humans and petal color in flowers. And strangely enough, it would seem that the larger the species the more genes it has, but that isn’t always the case. Rice (56,000) has more genes than humans (25,000) believe it or not!

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“Scientists have identified about 1.75 million different species. That includes 950,000 species of insects, 270,000 species of plants, 19,000 species of fish, 9,000 species of birds, and 4,000 species of mammals. This is only a small portion of the total number of species on Earth. There are millions more species yet to be discovered and named” (National Geographic.com). Wow! Those are serious numbers, yet even still biodiversity within environments and ecosystems is threatened everyday due to common human actions such as development and large scale commercial farming.

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Species extinction is often an effect of a decrease in biodiversity. While extinction and evolution are natural processes, human intervention in the past century has changed these natural processes and some scientists believe that extinction has increased to 100 times the natural rate due to rapid habitat destruction and invasive species introduction. This is where native gardening can be a huge help!

From planting swaths of native flora for migrating birds and butterflies to native landscaping to lobbying for strict community development rules, every bit helps protect our beautiful biodiverse world. Planting natives in the school yard is a great way to introduce students to the concepts of biodiversity in a way that doesn’t focus on habitat destruction and extinction or promote ecophobia.

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Native gardening studies make a great school wide project. With students 3rd grade and under, you can discover all the positives that native gardening brings for the local community and really develop an experiential connection to place. Then in 4th grade, when state history is a social studies topic, look at very specific flora and fauna, currently and historically, for your particular state and county and apply that to what is known about modern economic geography and how that affects biodiversity. Then finally in 5th and 6th grade it is appropriate to explore some of the more abstract and issue driven aspects of habitat destruction, the long term effects, and what can be done on a local level to protect biodiversity–but not without a plan for hands-on action that leaves the students feeling empowered not overwhelmed with plenty of nature time included! The Life in a Square lesson in my book Wings, Worms, and Wonder is a great place to start a biodiversity study (if I do say so myself) and is where I always start.

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Biodiversity studies and mapmaking are a great excuses to get the students outside (a lot). Walk around looking at things! This simple activity will inherently spark wonder and make connections. Observation and understanding must have time to develop and the students can get a much needed natural slow down while taking the time to hone observation skills and get to know the beautiful biodiversity right outside their door! Then the academics will fall right into place because so many questions will begin to arise from all the connections being made through experience.

What type of environments inspire you to consider the importance of biodiversity and habitat?

Are they local, global, or both?

Seeds to Sprout:

A beginning to connecting with place and understanding biodiversity is knowing where you are in your environment, something children are not learning because of our auto-centric lives. The book Map Making With Children by David Sobel is an amazing resource for integrating hands on real world map making into the classroom and school yard

Here is a great (short) academic article from the Environmental Education Training and Partnership on the importance of mapmaking in environmental education with age breakdowns and resources. (It references Sobel’s book as well.)

National Geographic Lessons for all grades for teaching biodiversity in place:

Help students understand and orient themselves in their landscape with this K-2 recommended lesson Using the Language of Location.

Mapping Biodiversity: a lesson recommended for grades 3-5 looking at backyard biodiversity and creating maps.

Birds aren’t the only migrating species! Humans have an interesting migration history too! Check out this Human Migration Then and Now lesson for grades 6-8 and begin to explore human biodiversity. A great time to introduce genetic biodiversity too!

The World Ocean: a lesson on the ocean and the earth’s interconnected systems. A grade 9-12 lesson especially place applicable for those of you in coastal environments.

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