In My Classroom: Investigating Energy Flow with ZOMBIES!

Welcome to the KABT blog segment, “In My Classroom”. This is a segment that will post about every two weeks from a different member. In 250 words or less, share one thing that you are currently doing in your classroom. That’s it.

The idea is that we all do cool stuff in our rooms and to some people there have been cool things so long that it feels like they are old news. However, there are new teachers that may be hearing things for the first time and veterans that benefit from reminders. So let’s share things, new and old alike. When you’re tagged you have two weeks to post the next entry. Your established staple of a lab or idea might be just what someone needs. So be brief, be timely and share it out! Here we go:

Investigating Energy Flow with ZOMBIES!


The Set-Up

It’s the zombie apocalypse! You have a safe fenced-in area that is impenetrable to the zombies.  But, you also cannot leave the fenced in area. If you had time to prepare this land, what would you plant? What livestock would you have? (Note: Students have the option of doing a Mars Biodome if they do not want to do the zombie apocalypse.)

Student groups are all given the same 11 x 17 inch grid paper. Each square equals 100 square feet. Each student needs a housing structure(s) that equal 20×25 squares.


The Goal

Sustain as many humans as possible using the land space given. The group who can sustain the highest number of people wins. The criteria for sustainability is 2,000 calories per day, per adult (730,000 calories per year). (Note: No stockpiling allowed).

The Work

Students need to find the total number of producer calories from all their crops. (Find the calories / square foot for each food, and then multiple by the number of total square feet.)


Then, students need to calculate how many of those producer calories are actually available for human consumption. To do so, students must figuring out how many of those producer calories their livestock will consume per year.

The only livestock here was goats, if you have different species of livestock you’ll want to add those together to do this calculation.

Next, students need to find the total number of anaimal calories produced. They calculate how many calories of meat (or eggs/dairy) each animal produces. (To simplify, one could assume the entire weight of the animal is meat.) Students do this for each type of livestock and add it together to find the total number of livestock calories produced. (If you have any secondary consumers, they will take a whole other set of calculations!)

Next, students find out how many calories their land produced for human consumption. They take the number of plant calories available for humans and add it to the total number of animal calories produced. Then, they divide that by 730,000 (the total number of calories needed per human per year) to see how many humans they can support.


Getting the Numbers

To make it easier, you could provide a list of several crop and livestock options with their calorie information. But, for me, one of the best parts of this project was having it open ended for the students. I have my students find the information on their own, but they have to back it up with a credible source. This gets pretty competitive, so the students really hold each other accountable.


Here are some important questions that we discussed after completing this project:

Goat image from Microsoft clip art
Goat image from Microsoft clip art
  1. Why do we lose calories when we feed them to livestock?
  2. What is the “best” crop? (calories vs. nutrients)
  3. Should we be putting plant calories into livestock?
  4. What are the pros and cons of having livestock?
  5. What would be the “best” livestock? (For example, for many reasons crickets are much more energy efficient than cows.)
  6. What does this make believe scenario have to do with the real world?

Tips and Suggestions

I suggest you have a running list of “rules” that you as a group decide upon throughout the project. For instance, someone will probably ask if it’s okay to do a rooftop garden. Whatever you decide, you should keep documentation of the “rules” your class makes. The students get pretty competitive and this is helpful.

To simplify our model, we assumed a lot. 1) People only need calories to survive, not certain nutrients. 2) We have sufficient water, fertilizer, and everything else needed to grow the crops. 3) We can store crops up to one year, and there is no limit to the type of crops that can be planted due to climate, etc. 4) Animals can only eat the part of the plant that humans eat. 5) All animals reproduce each year. 6) We eat the entire weight of the animal in meat. And more. But, these assumptions lead to fantastic discussions! I have students write about them for part of the end paper. They are also great opportunities for extensions.

Even with all of the assumptions and simplifications, the students were really able to “get it” in terms of energy transfer and the 10% rule.

If you’d like a more detailed description or have any questions, please e-mail me.

I know KELLY KLUTHE has some cool stuff to share! Tag, you’re it!

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

Why Algae?

When students first entered the classroom this semester, they were greeted by this sight:  
Needless to say, there were some questions asked.  The 10-gallon tank in the background holds the stock algae that we will be using for our “algae” experiments over the course of this class. (Special thanks to Dr. Belinda Sturm, Environmental Engineering professor at KU for the algae).
Inside the tank are two types of microalgae: Ankistrodesmus and Chlorella. My students have asked, “Why algae?” enough that Miranda Gray, plant pathologist at Kansas State University, developed a module on model organisms (doc and ppt). From this module, my students were able to come up with the following reasons to use algae when studying Environmental Science:
  1. Algae are prevalent in basically all ecosystems on Earth
  2. It is easy to tell when the algae have grown (Built in color indicator!)
  3. Very small size makes it easy to use in a HS classroom.  Replicating trials is easier also!
  4. Algae are cheap (free if you acquire it from a natural source), and hardy. [Something I have learned: It is always good to use an organism that is difficult to kill when dealing with HS scientists].
  5. Algae = Plant = Producer.  Since producers occupy the “lowest” trophic level in any given ecosystem, it is easier to make predictions about the impact on the other members of the community.
  6. Algae = Plant = No permission is necessary from an ethics board to experiment on algae.

Throughout the course of the semester, my students will be designing and implementing experimental treatments that will aim to test how algal growth responds to a number of factors, including:

  • Changing climate conditions
  • Acid deposition
  • Fertilizer run-off/Eutrophication
  • Invasive Species
  • Population dynamics (addition of primary and secondary consumers)
  • Oil spills and other point pollutants

If you have any questions, comments, or desire to collaborate with my students please email me at

***This post appears on our class’s blog, along with a few experiments.  We are currently analyzing the data from our climate experiments, and I will post the experimental protocols/data/conclusions soon.  Follow @Mr_Ising to know about any new updates first.***

School of Ants: Another Citizens Science Project

The School of Ants project is a citizen-scientist driven study of the ants that live in urban areas, particularly around homes and schools. Collection kits are available to anyone interested in participating. Teachers, students, parents, kids, junior-scientists, senior citizens and enthusiasts of all stripes are involved in collecting ants in schoolyards and backyards using a standardized protocol so that we can make detailed maps of the wildlife that lives just outside our doorsteps. The maps that we create with these data are telling us quite a lot about native and introduced ants in cities, not just here in North Carolina, but across the United States and, as this project grows, about the ants of the world!

Follow the link above to find out how you can participate and help inspire your students to become the next E.O. Wilson!



Earthworms Across Kansas

Looking for a new outdoor ecology investigation to conduct with your students?  … something that will require them to get their hands dirty?  … and aid in their learning and appreaciation for our native fauna? 

Then look no further than the new citizens science project, Earthworms Across Kansas organized by Dr. Bruce Snyder at Kansas State University.  As stated on their website and in an introductory letter I recieved a few weeks ago…

Earthworms Across Kansas is a free program that engages middle and high school students throughout the state in answering some basic, yet unanswered questions about Kansas earthworms, such as “Which species are here?” and “What are the ranges of these species?”

The project aims to educate Kansas’ middle and high school students about earthworm biology and invasive species issues by engaging them as citizen scientists.  One-third of the approximately 170 species of earthworms known to reside in the United States have arrived here from another continent.  We expect that most every earthworm your students collect will be an exotic species.

We are currently recruiting teachers to participate (online registration form), although only until we run out of kits.  Once registered, you can prepare for your participation by viewing curricula and lesson plans associated with earthworm biology that will be posted online through May.  In July or August your kit will be mailed, and your students can complete their collecting anytime during the 2010-2011 academic year.  The data from across the state will be uploaded on their interactive google map, and thus facilitate your students answering the basic questions posed by the project.

If you’d like more information about the program before registering certainly visit their website, and if you have further questions, please email the project at

I haven’t read through the protocols for this project yet but thought you may interested in learning from the active worm collectors and the research associated with their methods.  Check out Worm Grunting, Fiddling, and Charming—Humans Unknowingly Mimic a Predator to Harvest Bait published in PLOS.  Besides the article there are a number of interesting quicktime video links demonstrating the research.