In Praise of Collecting

One of the old standby activities of biology class is collecting, labeling, and classifying insects. I remember this was one of the true highlights of my life. When I was a young child I began collecting insects. The night before our collection was due several cute giggling girls in my ninth grade class showed up at my house asking if they could have some of my collection. The next week when we had our collections graded mine stood out among other less ambitious attempts which looked more like they had been collected with a shoe than a net. It was a rare moment where my nerdy habits were celebrated.

Rightly, insect collections have fallen out of favor in modern biology education. Bug collecting and classifying is hard to justify as a 21st century skill. 

Still, I think we shouldn’t forget about the value collections can have. Catching the bugs is a great way to compare and analyze biological forms.I think that there are two significant ways collections can be used in our evolution unit. 

First, collections allow students to consider the obscure insight of variation in a population.

consider how Alfred Russell Wallace arrived at his insight about natural selection. David Quammen explains in his book Song of the Dodo: Biogeography in the Age of Extinction  he explains,

“ Wallace had reason to notice such variation more clearly than most other naturalists. As a commercial collector, he collected redundantly- taking not just one specimen  each of this parrot ant that butterfly but sometimes a dozen or more individuals of a single species. Lovely dead creatures were his stock-in-trade, literally, and he grabbed what he could for the market. But after grabbing, he preserved, inspected, and packed his creatures with a keen eye, so he saw infraspecific variation laid out before him in a way that other field biologists ( including even the best of the wealthy ones, like Darwin) generally didn’t. it was a trail of clues that Wallace would follow to great profit.” (pg 65) 

This summer, I collected 133 Green June Bugs Cotinis nitida and then put them in a collection together.

Here you see the variation in Cotinis nitida as they go from bronze (left) to vivid green (right)

This gives students a vivid example of variation in a population. Most of the general public hasn’t seen the slight differences between individuals of the same species. Analyzing these collections can help them see the ingredient of variation that is necessary for of natural selection.

Shells can show this property as well, plus students can manipulate shells without breaking them. 

Shells can also help students to interact with the concept of biological variation. Students can manipulate them on their tables and sort them according to the variation that they see. (plus they’re fun to collect)

Secondly, collections allow students to very vividly see homologous traits and fossil evidence.

Last year I got out several of my collections and I had students move from station to station examining evidence for evolution. At each station I had either a fossil, a collection showing homologous traits/variation, a map for biogeography, a specimen with a vestigial trait/atavism, or a diagram showing comparative DNA.

Here students examine cowrie shells and find their “tooth like” structure. my goal is that they recognize that these similar species have a common structure due to a common ancestor. Looks like they’re having fun!

The students then had to apply what they knew about each evidence for evolution to a novel case. This proved to be a really fun experience for me because it forced me to apply what I was teaching in class to the world around me.

If that sounds like a whole lot to chew start with this; collect several pine cones from different species of firs, spruces, and pine. Challenge students with questions about why different species have similar structures.

At this station students were asked to consider why pine cones are so similar even though they are from different trees. In the physical examination of these structures homologous traits go from being an abstract idea to a physical reality.

Have your students examine these biological forms and identifying them helps you to move them from defining terms to analyzing and applying their knowledge.

Students comparing fossil ammonites to an extant Nautilus. I like that the evidence is in their hands not on a piece of paper. This allows them a more real chance to engage with the concept of evolution.

The Importance Of Having Students Act On The Loss Of Biodiversity

I remember one Sunday morning growing up where my family skipped church. My dad called the kids down for some “bed-side Baptist” where he gathered us together for a time of reflection. At one point he asked us if there was anything we should pray for. I remember the look of perplexed shock in his face as I stated that we really needed to pray for the dolphins. Earlier that week I had seen a photo of a dolphin drive hunt in a photo from National Geographic. There was something overwhelming in the image of these creatures tangled in nets and thrashing in the blood of their kin. As I began to explain the situation to my family I began weeping hysterically. My father had to hold and rock me in his arms to calm me while we prayed.

In my 30th year the destruction of our planet’s biodiversity still makes me ache. The true innocent emotions of the child within me weeps and I feel overwhelmed with the hopelessness. I think many of us who read this blog have that same emotion when we encounter this topic. Typically, we wire our brains to look the other way in the face of such destruction. Today, I want to remember that depth and move forward with the agency of an adult to impact change. A child feels completely powerless to do anything about the destruction of the Earth. It is a horrible feeling. I want to encourage you to slightly tweak your instruction on biodiversity to include some pragmatic action on the student’s part. I think we can turn students from being bystanders in this great saga of our age into active citizens who engage the issues that threaten biodiversity.

Lets suppose that we have a student who writes an excellent essay on how to mitigate the loss of biodiversity. They turn in the paper and receive some sort of grade. This teaches them that this issue is real. However, I wonder if this does more harm than help. By not leading our students through a concrete example of how their actions can mitigate the loss of biodiversity I think there is a learned helplessness that we pass on. The NGSS relating to this objectives are stated: that a student will design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity. HS-LS2-7. We need to teach our students to implement a solution as well. I don’t think that the scale of the project needs to be big, but I think the emphasis on their ability to learn and act creates the type of growth we should hope for in our students.

So, how I am trying to work on this topic? I have been introducing the topic with a video that I love by some great film makers. It is called Racing Extinction.

I have students write an essay on one way that biodiversity is impacted by one of the following human-driven factors: Agricultural Methane Emissions, Air Pollution, Coral Bleaching, Deforestation, Depletion of Freshwater, Desertification, Eutrophication, Fossil Fuels & Climate Change, Habitat Fragmentation, Human Overpopulation, Invasive Species, Overgrazing, Overexploitation of Renewable Resources, Plastic Pollution, Seasonal Mismatch & Climate Change, or Water Pollution. Then they make a presentation that covers this same topic. They must have three examples of cases where the human driven factor takes place, and each example must be accompanied by a graph that the student interprets in front of the class. (I would not let them do the topic of poaching, because so many students just pick this topic since they are comfortable with it). By forcing them to pick one of these less known topics they are in a better “zone” for growth. So, they write their essays and then they do their presentations. By the way, this is really similar to what Jeremy Mohn at Blue Valley Northwest does.

Student presenting on coral bleaching.

The thing I tried this year was to see how exactly it would impact students if they did do some additional volunteer work. I incentivized this by attaching extra credit to it. Also, Chris Ollig and I needed lots of help planting prairie plants on ¾ of an acre at Blue Valley North. Here are the differences between students who did the volunteer work versus those who did not.
1 There is nothing we can do to solve the environmental issues on our planet
2 I won’t be involved in many environmental programs unless it is convenient to me
3 I may or may not be involved in solving environmental issues
4 I will likely be involved in solving some environmental issues
5 I will definitely be involved in solving some environmental issues by using my time energy and resources.

Students who did participate were 12% more likely to ‘definitely’ be involved in solving environmental issues in the future. However, they reported being more ambivalent about their future involvement in some of the programs that they were a part of. I find this confusing. Perhaps these were more realistic people?


This non-participatory category shows 64.5% of students in category 4 who promise that they “I will likely be involved in solving some environmental issues”. Yet, they weren’t able to fit it into their busy high school schedules. I find this high number of category 4 very interesting. Perhaps we tend to think of ourselves as better people than we truly are.

I am disappointed that my results aren’t clearer to interpret, but I still think that I am headed in the right direction in my approach to get students to act on what they learn. This year our students raked in seed for our prairie, organized stream clean ups, recycled, drew inspiring messages about saving the planet on our school grounds, and helped planted a native garden.

These students independently organized their own stream clean up.
Students raking away dead grass thatch and helping seed native forbs and grasses in Blue Valley North’s new prairie planting.
Students put in native plants to a garden. The ecology club stratified and germinated the seed.

If that sounds like a lot to you, there are some other ideas about ways that you could help to get your kids involved in acting on what they learn about in relation to the loss of biodiversity.

-Clarify the connection of any plantings in a wildflower garden to the increase of biodiversity.
-Count the number of monarch caterpillars in a wildflower garden over several years. Have students plant new milkweed stands.
-Ask students to measure off a 5 ft by 5 ft area of their yard or lawn and let it grow wild. Ask them to post a picture of the plot and describe some of the changes.
-Instead of having students simply turn in papers have them publish them online or mail them to appropriate persons.
-Have them write a song about protecting biodiversity/the planet.
-Have them publish a video they make about their topic.
-Create a wildlife’s most wanted wall in your school. I did this two years to bring awareness to different species that are being poached. We lined the science wing with “mugshots” of animals that were being poached to extinction.
-Force them to have a conversation with an adult they know on the topic on biodiversity they are researching or that you are researching as a class. Have them turn in a selfie. I did this with my class. Did some of them cheat?- I’m sure but many had wonderful conversations with adults. Better yet get them to contact a researcher in their field and ask for guiding advice on a research project.

Aquaponics PBL

My students built their own aquaponics systems this spring.

First, I introduced a driving question to drive the project with a video. Next, the students broke into groups and explored three different types of aquapoincs units nutrient film, deep water culture, and media bed units. Then they shared what they had learned about these units in a jigsaw. After everyone had looked at the different types of units I asked each student which type they were most interested in making. They then were able to look at designs and make drawings of their own unit. Their homework was to bring this design to the next class. To begin the designs are unpolished

It is so amazing to be an educator and help facilitate this into a working system that a student can be proud to show off.

That night I made student groups based on the type of unit they were interested in making. I also chose groups so that I could pair kids with others who they could get along with. It is important and challenging to get student group dynamics right. Personally, I feel that an educator doesn’t need to follow some formula for this they should intuit based on their knowledge of students. The next day students got into the group I assigned to them and shared the diagram they had made. Students then used technology to make a single design as a group.

The work of revising models is something that this project has so much potential in developing.

I critiqued each groups design then sent them to the greenhouse to collect their supplies. Each group was given a 10 gallon aquarium, clay pellets, a $10 aquarium pump, air supply, and a chemical test kit. Other materials/tools that are necessary are a drill, string, silicon caulk, PVC, guttering, compound miner saws, plastic containers, and tubing. Supplying electricity is a serious safety concern. It is very helpful to be friends with the shop teacher.

Students quickly run into the realization that their model is very hard to achieve. Some models are even impossible. The first time I ran this activity I had students revise their models many times but this consumed lots of available work time. Now, I let them simply change their units with no revision to the model. These sorts of revisions can actually be really frustrating for students. Once they see water pumping and have some vision that the system will work the groups get collective energy to get work completed. Now I just have a quick discussion about how well the models work and why they’re useful. I originally had this idea of students revising their models several times, but I feel I had to let that go in order to have time for actually building the real units.

Students setting up a system this group had a very clever design that maximized growing space by using vertical space, but at night they would lose all their water so they had to make several revisions to their original plan.

Projects like this take days to work through. In order to grade students I actually have them grade themselves using a simple yet effective self assessment tool.

Each student has a column and must describe how they helped contribute to their group. If one student does more work than other students in the group it is possible that that student receives their points. If the student group does suggest that one student did not carry their load I am the judge of this decision. I base the decision on evidence of work done and conferences with student groups. If a student is gone for the day I ask them to come in during study hall and contribute the same amount that their partners did on the project. The tool is very powerful because it forces students to negotiate fair and appropriate workloads for one another. This is a huge part of what I am facilitating throughout the project. The first several days I will stop the groups every 15 minutes and ask them to write down what each group member did. Once they get the hang of it they write down tasks they have performed on their own. It may sound very simplistic but I have found it very helpful and with 120 students working this system I only had 5 times this year where I held group conferences. This proactive approach is much better for me than dealing with emails about how one student did “all the work in the group” then retroactively trying to negotiate things. I strongly suggest this as a method for helping to manage student groups on projects.


Students who successfully navigate workloads enter into the rest of life with great work skills.

The students do eventually get to the point where their system filters water through. It is amazing to see a system that really works. I have had several students decide that they want to go into designing aquaponics systems for a career. It is so cool to see how much pride they have in their systems.

Proud students show off a system that produced many tomatoes. The next step will be helping our culinary classes by growing veggie plants.
This is MY aquaponics build. Lots of these systems can be scaled up if your are crazy enough to do it.

Jeff & Pam Meyer, the owners of CalAnn farms a working hydroponics farm in Basehor generously showed us their facility. By tying in this real-world experience it helped direct students further up the road. It also gave us new ideas about ways to run more productive systems in our school.

Students see that their work is not just to get a grade but rather means to a career.
Jeff Meyer from CalAnn Farms explaining the process of sprouting thousands of basil seed.
Why not have some fun?  🙂

Get Out and Get Data…

In September of last year, the University of Kansas Biological Field Station graciously opened its facilities to the environmental science students of Basehor-Linwood High School. Scott Campbell, associate director of outreach and public services for Kansas Biological Survey, received the 20 students at the Armitage Center. Scott, a true educator, engaged the students in a discussion about the broad mission of the field station. Students curiously asked many questions about the current research that was being conducted.

Students received some general guidelines about how to treat the animals ethically. Soon students began a fierce competition to catch the most frogs. In the classroom a discussion about population surveys would have been met with little excitement. At the side of the pond, with frogs leaping through the cool September grass, there was not a student in twenty who thought this was a meaningless exercise. The excitement was palpable.

Once the frogs were collected , students retired to the Armitage Center for sack lunches. The frogs were cooled in a large refrigerator to make them easier to work with. Students had practiced weighing and measuring frogs in the classroom. Now these skills were put to work- there were 134 frogs to weigh, measure, and score for color patterns.

This scene was punctuated by moments of chaos when a frog or two would make a dive to get out of the grips of the high school students. After all the data was collected students returned to the pond to release the frogs. On the way, Mr. Daniel Smalley, their teacher, caught a small black snake.


The snake made its way to Mr. Stan Roth who is an adjunct research assistant and educator for the Kansas Biological Survey. Stan identified the species and engaged the students in a conversation about the natural history of the snake. Many students touched a snake for the first time.

Finally, students were able to seine in the pond. They had a good harvest of small fish and invertebrates.

Before the students returned to class they visited the Rockefeller Prairie and walked the trails. Students collected 10 flowering heads of goldenrod. The flowering heads were quickly covered in gallon ziplock bags and sealed shut. Inside all the insect species that were foraging or hunting on the flower heads were sealed too.

Back at school the students compiled the data into a Google spreadsheet. This data was then analyzed and graphed by hand. Thus, students had the chance to analyze data about a population that they had collected. Mr. Smalley then entered the information into Plotly an online graphing platform. The computer allowed the students to more easily analyze the distribution variables like snout to vent length and weight.

The final graph that students examined compared the length of frogs to their weight. Mr. Smalley explained that we should expect to see a strong connection between these two variables. Further, he explained, that this was an example of a mathematical model that could be used to predict and explain the population. Who knew there could be so much math in environmental science?

After the frog data was analyzed students took out ten bags of Goldenrod. The bags had been frozen. Students separated out the insects from the Goldenrod. They had to identify the insect species. Thankfully, Mr. Smalley has had a lifelong obsession with collecting bugs so with his help and a few field guides students quickly were able to determine the species they were looking at. Mr. Smalley then helped the students put together a food web based on these species. The bugs could then be categorized by their tropic level . Students collected the bugs of similar trophic levels together. This included 14 jumping spiders that served as top predators! Each level was weighed together. The students turned this into a large bulletin board that was displayed in the hallway. Mr. Smalley explained that this too was a model that showed where the biomass (a proxy for energy) was located in this micro community. Students really took to the project and decided that It would be good to include the actual organisms. Thus, all 14 spiders, herbivorous insects, and Goldenrod flower heads found their way on the bulletin board.

Experiences like this empower our youth to see themselves as shareholders of knowledge rather than passive vessels who blithely learn facts about things like ecosystems only to recite them back on tests.

Cat Genetics Mini Unit

This year I have tried a mini project-based unit that uses cats to teach genetics. I got the idea for this and some resources from an article written by Alan Christensen, a professor at the University of Nebraska. I started out by running through my normal unit on genetics to serve as a background on genetics vocabulary as well as skills to do Punnett Squares. Next, I had them go into the specifics of cat genetics. Cat genetics are well known due to years of artificial selection. Also, more recently their genome was sequenced and many of the genes that determine hair patterning has been investigated.  This entire mini unit was focused on the genetics of cats coat colors.

Day 1.

Students were introduced to cats and their genome. I went through a prezi to cover all eighteen autosomes of the cats and highlighted the specific loci where the genes that determined their coat color were located. I covered these observable genes and discussed their forms of inheritance. Then we talked about the Orange gene on the X chromosome. They then were given the chance to look at several cats from a local human shelter and score them for different genes.

Student Scoring A cat from a local shelter for its genetic traits
Student Scoring A cat from a local shelter for its genetic traits

At the end of class, they were given a chance to look up a specific gene from the NCBI genome of cats and try to determine what these genes does for the cell. (I would like to enrich this part of the unit but I don’t know how.) Their homework was to take a photo of their cat and bring it to school the next day on their phone or in an email.

Day 2. Students diagramed their cat based on a photo and posted this along with an analysis of the cat’s genome all around my room.

Student using a photo from their phone to diagram a cat. In the future these could be posted to a blog and other students could contribute to the genotyping of each cat.
Student using a photo from their phone to diagram a cat. In the future these could be posted to a blog and other students could contribute to the genotyping of each cat.


With a simple “cat scan” around the room I began to see some cool trends. For instance, that the dominant White gene was rare in our local population. This turned into a good discussion about why the dominant gene didn’t “dominant” all other genes. posting cats

After all of our gene pool was posted, I was able to use some manipulatives from my time judging of protein modeling to show how the mutations from different genes can cause changes in color. It was very helpful to have a three dimensional model of a “receptor” protein. I began to ask the question about how one gene such as white or orange could cause a change in color.

I'm trying to make Lin Andrews proud her by using some models. I attached them to my board with some magnets. It was so cool looking!
I’m trying to make Lin Andrews proud here by using some models. I attached them to my board with some magnets. It was so cool looking!

I used an explanation from Hopi Hoekstra from the University of Harvard about how fur color can cause a change in color. If the shape of the receptor protein is altered then the function of that protein will change, and in-turn its phenotype will change. Finally, the students read an article about Kermodism in black bears from British Columbia and answered questions about this article.  Here is a copy of the article for you to print (Spirit Bear). Kermodism is caused by the same Melanocortin 1 Receptor that I diagramed on the board.


The students drew a picture of their ideal “purrfect” cat. It had to have realistic traits and it couldn’t be hairless or all white. Students were able to take their “purrfect” cat diagrams and set up a breeding program to select from other student’s cats. They imagined that every time two cats bred they would produce eight kittens. I realized that some students were intentionally picking easier cats to breed for. So, I created several imaginary clients who wanted very specific traits for their cats. Each cat that they determined a breeding program for was an additional chocolate bar. Since all of the diagrams were in the classroom I could not ask the student’s to do any homework. In the future it would be neat to take all the pictures and post them to a blog so students could do homework as well as argue over the genes that different cats have.

Day 4.

We then concluded the unit with a section on natural selection with a video by HHMI on how mice in the desert have different levels of survival. The mice adapt due to a mutation in their Melanocortin 1 Receptor which is something that the students had heard about in previous lessons. I asked the students to select one single trait from our classes’ cat gene pool. For instance, we only had 5 out of 63 posted cats that were all white. I asked them to write out the percentage of their specific trait. Next, they described a realistic scenario where the environment selected for or against this trait. Several students imagined that there was a second ice age. I got as Socratic as I could with them and made students write out WHY the trait would be selected if an ice age came. Finally, they had to write in what they thought the final percentages of the population would be over time. Thus, I lead them through Variation, Selection, and Adaptation. This will help us lead into our next unit of evolution. One of my students lamented that they had their kitten eaten by a hawk earlier this spring. Another mentioned after class that if I needed a cat skin their family had about 30 cats in their barn… I laughed pretty hard until I realized he was serious. You’ve gotta love it when students start connecting genetics to their little small town.

I have just completed the mini unit and I have some mixed feelings as I process and reflect back on it. I think it was a good experience for the students. They were highly engaged in the process (58 out of 63 completed the task of determining the genes of their own cat instead of going online.) and I was glad to see that. The gaping hole in this project is that it needs more authentic artifact or product that the students produce so I can assess their understanding. The most fun part of the process was the number of cat jokes that I was able to work into each lesson. For that alone, it was worth undertaking. Let me know what you think and clue me into any ideas you may have.