The Biodiversity Community Action Project is a stimulating and vigorous project that allows students to gain an in-depth understanding of the interconnection between organisms and their environments as well as the connection of science to their lives and society. It addresses key content standards in the National Science Education Standards and integrates research, writing, and communication.

In an era of high-stakes testing, a push toward covering increasingly more material, and a focus on ““more important”” topics such as genetics and evolution, an in-depth, student-centered study of organisms and the ecological threats that face them has become rare in countless high school biology classrooms. The Biodiversity Community Action Project (BioCAP), which grew out of a semester-long collaborative effort between us and our students, was an attempt to provide general biology students in our rural high school the opportunity to embark on a stimulating and vigorous project that allowed them to improve their research, writing, and communication skills while addressing several key content standards from the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) (see Table 1).

Table 1.

Content standards from the National Science Education Standards addressed by BioCAP.

Unifying Concepts & ProcessesLife ScienceScience in Personal & Social PerspectivesScience & TechnologyHistory & Nature of Science
Systems, order, and organization Interdependence of organisms Personal and community health, population growth Understanding of science and technology Science as a human endeavor 
Change, constancy, and measurement Matter, energy, and organization in living systems Natural resources, environmental quality Historical perspectives Nature of scientific knowledge 
Evolution and equilibrium Behavior of organisms Natural and humaninduced hazards   
Form and function Biological evolution Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges   
Unifying Concepts & ProcessesLife ScienceScience in Personal & Social PerspectivesScience & TechnologyHistory & Nature of Science
Systems, order, and organization Interdependence of organisms Personal and community health, population growth Understanding of science and technology Science as a human endeavor 
Change, constancy, and measurement Matter, energy, and organization in living systems Natural resources, environmental quality Historical perspectives Nature of scientific knowledge 
Evolution and equilibrium Behavior of organisms Natural and humaninduced hazards   
Form and function Biological evolution Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges   

What began as a student-initiated project focusing on biodiversity soon grew to a more elaborate student-driven project involving identification and analysis of Science, Technology, and Society (STS) issues that threaten various organisms and their ecosystems, as well as student-initiated actions to help resolve such issues. Upon completing this project, students possessed a greater understanding of the interconnection between organisms and their environment and of the connection and relevance of science to their personal lives and society. Here, we will describe how the project evolved into its final form through class-generated ideas, discuss its major components, and offer ideas to enhance project quality and student success.

How It Began

Early in the year, our class of mainly freshmen and sophomores in a rural Midwestern community began their study of biology by exploring characteristics of living things. As part of the weekly assignment of sharing science-related articles from the Internet, newspapers, or other sources, several articles were discussed that set the initial stages for the BioCAP. A couple of students shared articles that dealt with the debate surrounding the classification of viruses as living organisms. Another student's article introduced the term ““biodiversity”” and discussed environmental threats against biodiversity. The class discussion mainly centered on these articles and grew extremely lively as students shared ideas, posed questions, and indicated a high level of interest in the topic of biodiversity. Our students' overwhelming interest –– coupled with the national and state standards' emphasis on biodiversity, classification, and the interconnection between science, technology, and society –– guided us to embark on the idea proposed by the students to work in teams to explore the various categories of organisms and related ecological and environmental issues. In order to simplify the task, we decided to use the classification categories provided in the textbook (Miller & Levine, 2001), excluding archaebacteria and eubacteria. Students formed teams and selected taxonomic groups (kingdoms) according to team size (Table 2). For example, categories such as invertebrates and vertebrates that included more subgroups and life processes were reserved for larger teams of four or five students.

Table 2.

Taxonomic categories and group assignments.

TeamTaxonomic GroupExamples of Organisms
Plants Multicellular Algae, Liverworts, Mosses, Club Mosses, Horsetails, Ferns, Gymnosperms, Angiosperms 
Fungi Protist-like Fungi, Common Molds, Sac Fungi, Club Fungi, Imperfect Fungi, Lichens 
Protista Protozoa, Unicellular Algae, Slime Molds 
Animals: Invertebrates Sponges, Cnidarians, Flatworms, Roundworms, Segmented Worms, Mollusks, Echinoderms, Arthropods 
Animals: Vertebrates Fishes, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds, Mammals 
TeamTaxonomic GroupExamples of Organisms
Plants Multicellular Algae, Liverworts, Mosses, Club Mosses, Horsetails, Ferns, Gymnosperms, Angiosperms 
Fungi Protist-like Fungi, Common Molds, Sac Fungi, Club Fungi, Imperfect Fungi, Lichens 
Protista Protozoa, Unicellular Algae, Slime Molds 
Animals: Invertebrates Sponges, Cnidarians, Flatworms, Roundworms, Segmented Worms, Mollusks, Echinoderms, Arthropods 
Animals: Vertebrates Fishes, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds, Mammals 

Project Components

Phase 1: Research

Teams began their work by gathering information about their taxonomic groups using the Internet and printed materials available in the school library and at home. As a class, they decided on several major themes to incorporate in their research, including (1) general characteristics of the taxonomic group; (2) common examples and description of each subgroup's general characteristics (structural and behavioral), habitat and niche, life processes (such as nutrition, gas exchange or respiration, transport or circulation, reproduction, locomotion, and response to environment); and (3) the relationship of the group with humans and//or other species. Earlier in the semester, we had begun the discussion on Science, Technology, and Society (STS), including environmental issues that surfaced again during students' discussion of biodiversity. Our school accommodated students from three local rural communities that sat on the edge of a river connecting to the Mississippi River. Our discussion on biodiversity elicited students' ideas and concerns regarding many issues that face their local communities, including polluted water, potential threats of the nuclear power plant in town, poor air quality, and waste management issues. Building on the students' own interest in these issues, we added to the research component by having each team of students choose an STS issue related to their taxonomic group (or any of the subgroups) to research in detail. For example, teams investigating plants could decide to explore and write about deforestation and logging (Figure 1) and its subsequent effects. The students were encouraged to discuss the role of technology and science in either augmenting the threat or helping to resolve the issue. In this way, they were also addressing the role of humans in altering their environments; hence, the interrelationship between science, technology, and society became one of the main foci of the project. For this component of their research, the students also used alternative methods of gathering information, such as communicating with the local Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officers, local university science faculty, farmers, and other individuals who would possess the necessary expertise.

Figure 1.

Sample STS//environmental issues investigated.

Figure 1.

Sample STS//environmental issues investigated.

Phase 2: Taking Action

Several weeks into the project, a brilliant idea was proposed during one of our class meetings that tremendously enhanced the quality and scope of the project. As already mentioned, our class had several conversations earlier in the semester regarding topics such as the interdependence of organisms, environmental sustainability, and the interrelatedness of science, technology, and society. Amazingly, during one of these STS discussions, some students raised the point that it did not seem sufficient or valuable to simply research and report on threats to various organisms. They argued that the project could serve as a perfect opportunity to act as responsible citizens and take action (locally or globally) to combat the particular issue and//or educate the public about it. This was viewed very favorably by the rest of the students, which prompted them to propose that every team would engage in an activity that demonstrated a commitment to improving the community on either a local or global level by combating the problem that was to be researched. This was considered the single most significant part of the project, because students had decided to go beyond the awareness level of simply learning about the living world and the STS issues that challenge its health by taking action and involving the community in an effort to raise awareness and help alleviate the problem. One of the distinctive features of the STS curriculum is that students not only identify and analyze STS issues but also take responsible actions to alleviate or impede the threats; hence, we were pleasantly surprised to have the students propose this idea on their own.

The students also participated in the revision and finalization of the grading criteria (Figure 2) and project requirements. It was decided that the action component would be evaluated on the basis of several factors, including (1) the creativity and uniqueness of the action, (2) its extent (long-lasting vs. short-term effects and extensive vs. little community awareness, education, and involvement), and (3) the amount of time and effort put forth. Because this was the students' first experience with such a demanding task, we brainstormed as a class and generated a list of possible ideas that would help them begin thinking about possible actions on their own. Each student could choose one or more or, better yet, come up with his or her own unique proposal. We were astounded with the extent and creativity of the actions taken by various teams, as summarized in Figure 3.

Figure 2.

Condensed version of the grading rubric.

Figure 2.

Condensed version of the grading rubric.

Figure 3.

Sample community actions taken by students.

Figure 3.

Sample community actions taken by students.

Several teams of students chose to write in the local newspaper as a way to take action and educate the community about their selected issue. Two examples (Figures 4 and 5) were editorial pieces written about the quality of local water and loss of biodiversity, dangers these issues pose for the community and organisms living in the area, and steps the community should take to solve the problems. Some students created brochures, such as one advocating the use of ethanol (Figure 6), to distribute at the school and at community events.

Figure 4.

Article in the local newspaper.

Figure 4.

Article in the local newspaper.

Figure 5.

Editorial in the local newspaper.

Figure 5.

Editorial in the local newspaper.

Figure 6.

Brochure encouraging the use of ethanol.

Figure 6.

Brochure encouraging the use of ethanol.

Several other teams chose to use the Internet to broadcast their concerns to a larger audience; they subscribed to free Web hosts and created their own Web pages outlining details about their issues and proposals for tackling them. Yet other teams volunteered their time in the local elementary schools and spent one to several sessions (depending on the flexibility of the elementary grade teachers) educating the youngsters about their issues. For example, one team presented several educational and activity-filled sessions on the importance of trees, dangers of deforestation, and actions children can take to protect trees. One team led a tree-planting effort, partnering with the elementary and middle schools, the local DNR, Audubon Society, and Arbor Day Foundation branches, which turned out to be a huge success.

Our students were also very concerned about local water quality and the high numbers of cancer cases in towns near the school. One team got involved in collecting and analyzing water samples and writing to the local Environmental Protection Agency about its concerns and suggested solutions such as lowering the amount of farm runoff, taking cautionary steps to reduce the danger of the nuclear power plant's radioactive waste, and collective efforts to clean up the river. They then organized a successful day-long community river clean-up, captured in Figure 7. Students in one team were flabbergasted that their town did not have curbside recycling pick-up, so they campaigned and spoke at a town council meeting and were indeed successful in launching a curbside recycling program. The following semester, they informed us that they were able to convince the town council to initiate efforts to deal with safe disposal of such waste as engine oil and used car batteries.

Figure 7.

Students cleaning the local river.

Figure 7.

Students cleaning the local river.

Final Phase: Report, Presentation, & Display

At the end of the semester, each team of students submitted a report containing its research, a summary of the community actions they took to combat the problem, and a bibliography. They also prepared large displays showcasing a variety of information on their taxonomic group, the environmental or STS-related issue investigated, and the actions they took as a team. They were instructed to make these displays informative and aesthetically pleasing, including items such as graphs, pictures, maps, sample specimens, and other creative additions. The displays were used during the class presentations and then exhibited in the classroom and later in the school hallway for other students, faculty, and staff to view. The week before finals was devoted to the BioCAP presentations. Each team was responsible for teaching the class about its taxonomic group, the relevant environmental and ecological issues, and the community actions they took.

Because we were on an 85-minute block schedule, each team was allowed up to 40 minutes for its presentation, including the Q&A session. Teams used an array of techniques, such as demonstrations, lab investigations, homemade videos, skits, models, charts, PowerPoint presentations, poems, and songs, in an effort to provide the audience a variety of engaging and meaningful learning experiences. The presentations were extremely creative and educational, and they reflected the time and effort the students had invested in the project. Everyone in class was attentive to the presentations, and in their assigned weekly journals they reflected on how the project itself and the class presentations had served as an immense learning experience and an eye-opener for them.

After each presentation, we spent the remainder of the class discussing the issue. Students were encouraged to give their opinions on the issue as well as what they thought should be done locally or globally to stop the problem. Many of these discussions turned into especially interesting debates, with students embracing and defending different positions, and brainstorming sessions that resulted in long lists of actions to be taken by individuals, communities, and nations. The presentation schedule and timing can be adjusted to accommodate shorter class periods; however, keep in mind that this project addresses many important topics as stated in the standards, so it deserves due time and attention.

Enhancing the Learning Experience

Team Contracts & Task Logs: Ensuring Collaboration

We are all aware that students often find themselves in teams with unequal distribution of work and responsibility. To prevent such an enormous project from falling on the shoulders of only one or two students, we repeatedly emphasized the importance of collaborative and cooperative teamwork. One of the early project requirements was drafting a team contract that included a statement of cooperative learning and a plan for dividing the various responsibilities and completing the tasks in a timely manner. Each student also kept an individual task log that included a description and the amount of time spent on each task and responsibility, the efforts of other team members, and any problems or concerns they experienced either individually or as a team. Their task logs were collected twice to check their progress, once midsemester and again at the end of the semester.

Project Milestones: Keeping Everyone on Track

The project outcomes would be disastrous if students were to procrastinate with a project of such magnitude. Therefore, we set deadlines and milestones throughout the semester to ensure that students were keeping up with the work. A couple of weeks into the project, they submitted a Project Description Sheet indicating their taxonomic group and the environmental issue they wished to investigate, along with the team contracts describing their plan of action and the various roles and responsibilities of the team members up to that point and forward. They also submitted two one-page reports at different points in the semester that allowed us to assess what had been accomplished in terms of the research, the report, and the action components of the project, what still needed to be accomplished, and any problems or concerns faced by the team. Issues were quickly discussed with individual teams to aid in the process of completing the project effectively and efficiently.

Proof of Action: Providing Convincing Evidence

Students were asked to provide all proofs of action, such as pictures, videotapes, and other documentation that would serve as evidence of where, what, how often, and how the action was carried out. To avoid situations in which students might claim that they had carried out certain actions they had in fact not done, we informed the class that failure to provide evidence of action would result in their receiving no credit for the action component of the project.

Final Thoughts

Although this project requires an extensive amount of time and effort on the part of both the students and the teacher, it is one of the most worthwhile and rewarding projects we have ever facilitated. Students referred to this task in their end-of-semester portfolios as one of their favorite assignments. They mentioned the wealth of information they had learned about the various taxonomic groups, the interdependence of organisms, human dependence on a healthy environment, and the crucial role humans can play in positively or negatively affecting their environments. They had the opportunity to (1) learn about a number of STS issues, (2) investigate the effects of the environmental challenges on various organisms and the influence of human actions on other species, (3) publicly communicate their ideas and work to their classmates and the community at large, and (4) apply the results of their research to scientific argumentation and explanations during class discussions.

The students' learning was not detached: they witnessed the connections to real life, the implications for their community, and the roles of science and technology in both giving rise to and providing solutions to societal problems. Most importantly, the students became aware of the role they can take as ordinary citizens, either individually or collectively, in improving the quality of their communities locally or at large. They were impressed by the impact of their actions, engaged in learning about the actions taken by other groups, and immensely enthusiastic in continuing their efforts beyond the classroom. BioCAP was a remarkable way to address both biodiversity and STS issues, which otherwise would have received either no instruction time or only superficial coverage. An important component of scientific literacy is being able to think critically and make decisions about societal issues that involve science and technology, yet this is often overlooked in content-driven curricula. BioCAP provided students with a context to learn about the various categories of organisms and the threats facing them and to think critically about innovative approaches to help resolve such issues. The knowledge and skills that they gained from this project surely surpassed many other science experiences they had in their high school science classes. Because of its success and popularity, the BioCAP was continued with slight revisions, and similar projects were successfully incorporated into the introductory chemistry (ChemCAP) and environmental science (EnviroCAP) classes in the years that followed.

Acknowledgments

We acknowledge the tremendous effort and outstanding work of Oregon High School biology students who made this project a success. A special thank you to the former principal of OHS, Dr. Terry Sherer, who was instrumental in allowing such projects to flourish.

References

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