Biomes Activity by Chris Ollig

During our fantastic camping chair conversations at this springs kabt field trip several people shared some wonderful ideas for lessons they have developed or used in their classroom.  I had a few individuals inquire about an activity I developed to help students learn about the various biomes.  

As is usually the case, a winter collaboration with fellow bvn biology teachers helped spark an idea.  We were discussing ways to avoid the usual mundane exercise of teaching students “facts” about various biological thingamajigs.  I have struggled for a while with how much it pained me to teach students about how many inches of rain a particular biome received annually so that seemed like the best topic to start on. 

My general philosophy is that teaching students how to gather information about a topic is more beneficial than spoon feeding them the information.  Further, I feel that having students inquire about just one topic (i.e. rainforest biome) rather than every topic will allow them to better grasp the idea of what exactly the concept is.  That is certainly more valuable than knowing how much rainfall EACH biome receives annually etc.  Second, I would say that giving the students purpose in their learning and perhaps even stoking a little competition does wonders for building student engagement.  

That brings me to this lesson.  I attempted to develop a way to encourage students to investigate one particular biome, and what better motivation than their VERY SURVIVAL! Admittedly I have a guilty pleasure…Naked and Afraid.  So this activity plays with the idea that students are dropped off in a particular biome and asked to survive by researching various biotic and abiotic factors found in their environment.  The more thorough their investigation, the longer they survive. Granted, a bunch of naked high school students running around the rainforest is probably not something the district would condone, so I changed the name to…wait for it…Mostly Clothed But Still A Little Afraid.

This spring was my first attempt at this activity, and yes I did discover several aspects that could use some tweeking, but my overall impression was that the students genuinely loved it. They were excited to dig into their biome and see what they could come up with.  After the assignment was completed I averaged the “days survived” for each group and had a dramatic reveal of the winning groups.  Interestingly, the biomes I thought would be the easiest to survive scored the lowest.  I think that across the board, the dessert biome scored the highest.  Go figure.

Anyways, here is the full document.  Use what you like, modify for your tastes.  

Biome Survival Project STUDENT HANDOUT
Biome Survival Project TEACHER INFO

Chris Ollig, Blue Valley North High School

Inquiry in AP Biology

The recently implemented AP Biology curriculum has placed an increased focus on science practice skills.  In an effort to properly reflect this in my classroom, I made the decision to build my final unit around an open inquiry investigation.  The unit was ecology, and the results were so positive that I plan to use some of the lab ideas in other courses this coming year.

One Student Project

One Student Project

My students’ time in the lab over the course of the year was marked by struggle.  This is true most years, and while there was tremendous growth I wasn’t really sure what to expect from them with so much freedom.  Their projects were tremendous, and I can identify one specific behavior that I know had a significant effect on their success:  early feedback.

We participated in peer review in AP Biology several times throughout the year.  Whenever we have a peer review session, I model it closely after the professional peer review process in the scientific community.  To ensure students are critical and offer useful questions and suggestions I have begun implementing a surprising rule:  “If you have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  It’s the opposite of the usual adage, but the policy prevents group-think and removes the stigma associated with critique.  The atmosphere is still positive and focused on growth.  I offer support and positive reinforcement myself, but the students must only ask questions or offer criticism.  At first they hate it, but by the end of the year I have found they usually keep the mentality in all discussion settings and we have more productive debate and argument as a result.

Another student project.

Another student project.

The peer review was a critical aspect of the investigation report because we used it at the most critical moment in the life of an experiment, the beginning.  Groups performed background research and formulated a prelab proposal, and we spent a full class day discussing the proposals.  Nearly every student group had a question that was not acceptable at the beginning, but as a class they revised each question to create true driving questions.  Students asked each presenting group questions like, “Well how are you going to measure that?”  or, “What part of that question are you REALLY curious about?”  I mostly listened, and together each group shared what they had and walked away with actionable next steps.  If I could have such productive and thought-provoking discussions every day in class, I would do nothing else all year.

A third student project

A third student project

There were plenty of things about the project that I need to improve (my time management between work time and other instruction and how to properly implement the modeling aspect of the project to name a couple).  Even with the challenges, it was a rich experience for everyone.  I vividly remember one group who stayed after school for an hour to troubleshoot their design.  I did little more than watch as they scribbled all over my class whiteboard discussing their variables, identifying constants, and making predictions.  At the end, one of my students that had struggled with the inquiry environment the most (very traditionally successful and was not comfortable with risk) turned to me and asked, “Is THIS what researchers do, because this is awesome.”  They were ENJOYING their difficulties, and I am getting goosebumps again now just writing about it.  Often AP teachers point to the breadth of curriculum we must cover as an excuse to avoid such open projects, myself included.  It was a risk I was very glad I took.

Anyone interested in seeing the investigation handout I provided the students, the document can be viewed here.

KABT Fall Meeting – Vote for Breakout Sessions

This year at the 2014 Fall Conference we’re trying something new, we want to have two breakout sessions where participants get to decide what they would like to talk about! Maybe it’s using technology (like BYOD) in your classroom, moving from a traditional grading system to a more standards-based one, or something else, the topics are limitless and we’re looking for your input!

If there’s a topic you want other to vote on that you’ve had to type in, put it in the comments so I can add it to the existing list.

So, what topics would you like to discuss during the breakout sessions at the 2014 KABT Fall Conference? I’ve invited you to fill out the form KABT Fall Conference Community Session Voting. To fill it out, please visit:

KABT Fall Meeting – Call for Presentation Proposals

Have something to share with the KABT community? Maybe it’s a new lab or activity that focuses on student collaboration? Maybe you’re looking for potential collaborators on a teaching project of yours? We invite you to come share at the 2014 Fall Conference on September 13th at the KU Field Stations. This year the focus will be on “Collaboration”.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a first time presenter, first year teacher or seasoned veteran. We’re looking for a variety of sessions with the central focus of collaboration, either between teachers, students, or a mix of both. If you’re unsure, submit your session idea and we can work with you as well. We want new faces, especially yours!

I invite you all to fill out the form KABT Fall Conference 2014 Presenter Application. To fill it out, please visit:

STEM Discussion Event – 7/16/14

The Kauffman Foundation is hosting a series of casual education meetups in the month of July to provide a setting to discuss current teaching innovations.  Next week I get to present, and I’ll be leading a discussion of how to encourage greater penetration of inquiry methods both in STEM classrooms and also beyond typical STEM settings (non-STEM disciplines and elementary classrooms).  The sessions have been interesting and thought-provoking thus far, and it’s been especially valuable to get “outside the garden” of life science teachers with which I typically interact.  I would love to have contributions from anyone interested and willing to join.  Plus free coffee, so awesome.


Where:  Kauffman Foundation (4801 Rockhill Rd Kansas City, MO 64110)

When:  July 16th from 8:00a – 9:00a

Carpool:  Anyone traveling from the south (Olathe) shoot me a message if you want to carpool/ride with me.


Hope to see you all there!