Being the Bug: Mi-STAR Lessons Immerse Students in the Drama of Nature

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Kids—and some of us adults—love role play, from acting out their favorite Star Wars characters to The Incredible Hulk. But who among us ever wanted to be a mayfly?

Well, as it turns out, being the mayfly can be pretty cool. If you are one of the teachers piloting the latest Mi-STAR science classes, you know what I mean. If not, some explanation is in order.

Science teachers Barbara Mcintyre and Robin Allen of the Midland Public Schools and Jennifer Martin Davis of L’Anse Area Schools recently finished the unit “Michigan’s Changing Ecosystems,” which introduces students to ecological forces at work in their own back yards and across the state.

The students started each lesson by exploring ecological phenomena, which is central to the Mi-STAR approach to learning. For example, in an experiment to show the effect of food resources on population growth, they fed yeast several different concentrations of apple juice. As you might expect, the more resources the yeast were fed, the more they grew—except in one classroom, where students got an unintended lesson on the role of temperature. “We found that our lab was too cold for the yeast to multiply as expected,” one teacher told us. “Once we moved the beakers to the heat registers in our classrooms, we got better results.”

Some students were so fascinated by the yeast experiment that they would happily have followed their colonies’ progress through the end of the school year. But this Mi-STAR unit has bigger critters in mind; by the end of the lesson students were applying their new knowledge of yeast to plants, wildlife and the places they live.

As in all Mi-STAR units, students applied their learning to Unit Challenge: a 21st century problem that scientists are addressing in real life. In “Michigan’s Changing Ecosystems,” each class was divvied up into groups that were assigned one of six ecosystems: rivers, lakes, dunes, wetlands, urban forest or white pine forest, and each student in those groups selected a different organism for in-depth study.

As they worked through each lesson, the students applied their new knowledge to predict how their ecosystems and organisms would be affected by an invasive species. To create their models, students embarked on virtual tours of Michigan ecosystems using Google Maps and Google Trekker to help them understand their ecosystem as a whole. They conducted classroom experiments to fortify their understanding of resources and competition. They used role play to act out the many and varied ways species interact with each other. And they created scientifically accurate, emotionally compelling videos that engaged them, not only with their classroom experience, but also with the natural world.

Because Mi-STAR focuses on Michigan, they looked at issues close to home: how deer populations change with different amounts of snow and how the invasive purple loosestrife can upend a wetland. Working together, students in each group learned how their organisms interacted with each other and their environment. Individually, each student created a model: a graphic with their organism at the center surrounded by its relationships—predators, competitors, parasites—anything they could find in their research that may cause their population to grow or shrink.

Each group developed a management plan to combat an invasive species threatening to dominate their ecosystem. The exercise required them to cope with the same pressures facing grown-up land managers, so students took on the identities of different interest groups. They discovered that there’s no such thing as one perfect plan. Management is always a marriage of science and values, and values can be as varied as those held by hiking groups, chemical company representatives and county board members.

Finally, as a culminating experience, each group lobbied for a share of the class’s limited “conservation fund” to go toward protecting their ecosystem.

The arguments were well reasoned and based on their new knowledge, say their teachers. Plus, a fair number of students had begun to identify with their organisms, and they were passionate beyond all expectations. After all, so much was at stake; they were the mayfly, and they were at risk of losing all their food to the invasive New Zealand mudsnail.

Now that the pilot completed, Mi-STAR is gathering feedback from the teachers and preparing “Michigan’s Changing Ecosystems” for wider release in the 2016/2017 school year. Soon, more students throughout the state may discover the coolness of taking on the persona of an osprey, or a brook trout—or even a delicate, winged insect that emerges in swarms so thick they can show up on radar like a thunderstorm.


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Mi-STAR was founded in 2015 through generous support provided by the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. Mi-STAR has also received substantial support from the National Science Foundation, the MiSTEM Advisory Council through the Michigan Department of Education, and Michigan Technological University.