“Today I learned that bugs are cool.” 7th grade Jeannette Junior Senior High School student during their field day with Headwaters.
When Headwaters introduced the 7th and 8th grade students at Jeannette Junior Senior High School to the idea of conducting scientific research around their school’s campus, many of them were skeptical of what they might find. Dirt, trash, and crazy people were some of the things these middle school students first suggested when asked what they might find in the woods around their school. However, given that there are an estimated quadrillion (10^15) ants in the world, we hoped that on closer inspection the students might find some more ecologically interesting subjects.
For those unfamiliar with Jeannette, Pennsylvania, it is a small city of 9,000 half-an-hour east of Pittsburgh, comprised of a diverse mixed oak forest. What lives in the forests surrounding the Jeannette Junior Senior High School? It turns out a lot more than the students first suggested.
Before going outside, 7th and 8th grade students worked in small teams to come up with a research question and a prediction. The students then designed ecological experiments to test their questions. During the field day, these groups of students scoured their campus looking for evidence and collecting data. In total they found over 300 insects, 200 birds, thousands of plants, and two very cool deer skeletons. Moreover, they investigated the dynamic connections between these populations and the resources they need to survive, such as sun, water, food, and shelter.
Here are a couple of their findings:
One group of students investigated whether they would find more insects underneath rocks or logs to learn more about what makes the best insect habitat. While they did not find a difference between the mean number of insects under rocks versus logs, they did find more insects in grassy areas than under rocks or logs. They hypothesized this difference was because the grass was more damp than the other locations.
A separate group studied how the populations of birds were distributed among different habitats around their school from the field to the forested areas. They found 60 different birds in the fields and 95 in the forested areas in total.
Finally, many different sets of students surveyed the school campus for terrestrial insects. On average, each group caught just over 40 insects and 7 different orders of invertebrates. Millipedes, roly polies, and spiders were the most common non-insects caught. Groups generally found higher numbers of insects and greater invertebrate biodiversity in areas with higher vegetation density.
Beyond learning about the populations and resources surrounding their school, students also practiced valuable science skills during these projects. Between pre and post program student surveys, the % of students who responded as “Very Confident” or “Somewhat Confident” on their ability to apply the scientific method increased by 27.7%.
While groups were finishing up presentations on their results, we asked a few different students how this program was different from their regular science class. Their responses echoed the findings from the survey data. “We went outside and we experienced more”, “The best thing I did today was science”, and ”Finding this deer skeleton was more fun than normal science class”.
This program was free of charge for the school thanks to generous support from The Nature’s Way Market and WN Tuscano Agency, both of Greensburg, PA, as well as many other individual donors from the region. Thank you!