Take Your Class Outdoors for Organic Gardening

It’s warm outside. The sun is shining bright and white cumulus clouds drift in the blue skies. You notice your students’ eyes wandering outside as you are trying to find ways to keep their’ minds engaged in their science class. You are desperately wishing that you could take your students out of doors while also teaching content related to the National Science Education Standards.

Good news! Outdoor projects such as planting and maintaining a garden satisfy all aspects of scientific inquiry by inviting interactive and hands-on exploration. By creating a garden, students will be able to look at how energy moves throughout an ecosystem. Furthermore, such an activity fosters students’ ability to conduct original research by coming up with their own ways to collect data on a wide range of questions. Outdoor projects also allow students to make observations that are both qualitative and quantitative.

In 2009, Michelle Obama and Washington-area school kids planted the White House vegetable garden. Watch a video of First Lady Obama touring the organic vegetable garden and discussing her goal of educating children about healthy eating. Then read the accompanying article by Dan Shapley with your students. Seeing our government take action will help students to see the importance of their own school garden project. You can see more coverage of the White House garden on a Washington City Paper blog, which was recorded on April 8, 2010.

Connecting to Standards

Outdoor projects, such as planting and maintaining an organic garden, align with the following content standards for grades 5-8 from the National Science Education Standards.

Content Standard C: Life Science

Regulation and Behavior

-All organisms must be able to obtain and use resources, grow, reproduce, and maintain stable internal conditions while living in a constantly changing external environment.

Populations and Ecosystems

For ecosystems, the major source of energy is sunlight. Energy entering ecosystems as sunlight is transferred by producers into chemical energy through photosynthesis. That energy then passes from organism to organism in food webs.

Background Information

What is organic gardening?

Organic gardening does not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Organic gardeners choose plants that are suitable to their specific climate and environmental conditions. It is also important to consider the soil, water supply, wildlife, insects, and even people. Organic gardeners try to minimize any resources the garden consumes, replenishing resources with organic matter.

Why should we garden organically?

When you grow vegetables organically, you are not only eating healthier but also creating a sustainable and more balanced ecosystem. Furthermore, obtaining produce from your own garden is often cheaper than buying it from a grocery store.

Organicgardening.com is an online resource that will answer many questions about organic gardening.

Learning Objectives

Creating an organic classroom garden can be a year-long endeavor, which encourages you to go outdoors with your students. By the end of the gardening project, your students will have:

-An understanding of how organisms may interact with one another.

-An understanding of how changes in an organism’s ecosystem/habitat affect its survival.

-An understanding of how an organism can only survive if its needs are met (e.g., food, water, shelter, air).

-An understanding of how all organisms cause changes in their ecosystem and how these changes can be beneficial, neutral, or detrimental.

-An understanding of food chains and food webs (e.g., producers, herbivores, carnivores, omnivores and decomposers).

-An understanding of how natural occurrences and human activity affect the transfer of energy in an ecosystem.

-An understanding of how the number of organisms an ecosystem can support depends on adequate biotic resources and abiotic resources.

-An understanding of how organisms or populations may interact with one another through symbiotic relationships and how some species have become so adapted to each other that neither could survive without the other.


To get your students thinking about organic gardening and the components that it entails, have students come up with a design for a garden. This can be done online, bringing technology into the classroom. KiddoNet offers an online planner that allows students to design a flower garden. If computers are not available, the activity can be done using an 8.5″ by 11″ sheet of copy paper and crayons.

When students have completed their garden design, ask them to explain it in a think-aloud fashion. Use the following questions as a guide. (If students need help researching, you may want to give students the questions before they come up with their designs.)

– How big will your garden be? Why?

– Will it be located in a sunny or shady environment?

– Is the area warm or cool?

– How much rainfall does the area get?

– Is the area close to water sources? If not, what arrangements will be needed to ensure that the garden survives?

– What is the soil like?

– Is the location hilly or flat?

– How many plants do you plan to have in your garden?

– How many types of plants do you plan on having?

– What should you consider when choosing your plants?

– Are animals allowed to enter the garden?

– If so, what types? Are they important in the survival of the garden?

– Is there any symbiosis or mutualism occurring in the garden?

– What energy cycles do you expect to occur?

– What biotic resources are important to your garden?

– What are the relationships between the abiotic and biotic parts of your garden?

– How could you maximize diversity?

– How would increased diversity lead to an increased energy transfer throughout the garden?

– How would the presence of humans and pets affect the energy within the garden?

The type of garden or outdoor project that you actually engage your students in depends on the age of the students, financial means, and time constraints. You may want to consider applying for grants to finance an organic garden project. You can find a list of grant opportunities at the Middle School Portal/Getting Grants page.

Additional Information

Middle School Portal 2 has many resources about gardening. Try Thinking Green? Grow Your Own! Linking Agriculture, Gardening and Technology. This resource guide provides ideas and resources for integrating science and technology into studies of agriculture and gardening. It provides answers to these questions: What, and how, can students learn from gardening? How can gardening be accomplished in urban or suburban sites? What technologies enable agriculture and home gardening? What are the underlying science principles of these technologies? What is the economic impact of agriculture and home gardening? Some related careers are also highlighted.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Brittany Wall and published May 27, 2010 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

We Are All Connected to the Oceans: A Lesson to Help Students Understand the Ways Humans Impact Marine Ecosystems

Students can look at a globe or map and readily see that water dominates our planet. However, do students know that over 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water? Do they realize the importance of the oceans?

Currently, 80 percent of all people live within 60 miles of a seacoast. Yet many adolescents still do not think that the ocean waters impact their lives and vice versa. There are many reasons for this naive thinking. A common one is “I don’t eat seafood so I don’t use ocean resources.” Other reasons can be attributed to lack of a personal connection with the oceans. Some students have never visited oceans and swam in their warm waters.

As educators, one of our goals is to help students understand the importance of their everyday actions.  The National Science Education Standards state that students should have an understanding of human impact on the environment.

To help students identify how humans impact the marine environment, make a personal connection with the oceans, and raise awareness of marine environmental issues, teachers can use this week-long lesson.  This activity will help students think critically within the context of important marine issues.

National Science Education Standards

This lesson closely aligns with three of the Science Content Standards of the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry, Life Science, and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives.

Science as Inquiry: Abilities Necessary to do Scientific Inquiry (Grades 5-8)

  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data.
  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence.
  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.
  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.
  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.

Life Science: Populations and Ecosystems (Grades 5-8)

  • Lack of resources and other factors, such as predation and climate, limit the growth of populations in specific niches in the ecosystem.

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives: Natural Hazards (Grades 5-8)

  • Human activities also can induce hazards…. Such activities can accelerate many natural changes.


Engage students in learning about their personal connection with the ocean. Have students act as marine scientists for a week. On day 1, students should read an article/blog post or watch a video clip that discusses current news about the oceans. Students should read different articles and watch different videos. Students should then write a brief “news report” of their own. This report should summarize the article or video that they read or watched.

In their news report, students should alert their audience to daily activities, such as littering or not recycling, that may impact and contribute to changing marine environments.

Here are some ideas for articles and videos:


On day 2 as marine scientists, the students will explore their marine articles and videos in an “environmental summit. ” In small groups, they will share their news reports and discuss the daily activities that they came up with.

Students should then group the activities into categories (i.e., littering and driving separately/not carpooling could be in a category titled “increased pollution”).  Students should determine the relative significance of each activity. Students may wish to use a rating scale to explain the impact (i.e., a rating of 5 would mean the daily activity directly damages the ocean in a negative way and a rating of 1 would mean the activity could potentially harm marine environments). Students will then share their categories and rating scales with the class.  List the categories and activities on the board.

Note — you should see similarities within the groups.  Raise students’ awareness of this and facilitate a class discussion centered around humans impacting marine environments.


On days 3 and 4, students will work in small groups of two to three to create an action plan.  The goal of this action plan will be to raise awareness of marine environmental issues and to identify how humans impact the marine environment.

In this action plan, students should:

  • State and describe why an action plan is needed.
  • Support their claims with real data.
  • Identify five human actions that impact the marine environment.
  • Propose a possible solution and identify steps humans can take to reduce their negative impact on the marine environment.

Evaluate (Assess)

On day 5, students will submit their action plans to the summit leader (the teacher). Students will explain their findings to the class and share their proposed solutions. Students will compare and contrast the various solutions through class discussion. Then students will journal or reflect on their own personal impact and what they can do to lessen this impact.


Middle School Portal 2 (MSP2) provides many great resources focused on the oceans.  For background information, try Earth’s Oceans.  This guide discusses the oceans as a part of the earth system — the link between oceans and climate; tsunamis; life science concepts such as ocean ecosystems, food webs, and biodiversity; real data – both sources of and projects that use real data; and related careers. There is  a section on common misconceptions about the oceans and a section about the science standards that the guide connects to.

Even though you might not teach a unit called oceans, the oceans can be used as a context within other units, such as ecosystems, energy transfer, systems thinking, or methods in science.

Another useful resource developed by MSP2  is Ocean Systems.  This guide focuses on earth and physical science, including volcanic island formation and tsunamis; life science concepts, including ocean ecosystems, food webs, and biodiversity; science in personal and social perspectives, including pollution, endangered species and conservation; and related careers.

Students may wish to use visuals to raise awareness. Ecoartspace is an organization that focuses on addressing environmental issues through the visual arts. In addition to their action plans, students can create visual works of art that can be displayed throughout the school to raise awareness.  (You may want to work in collaboration with your school’s art program).

This lesson lends itself to discussing climate change.  These resources will help you have that discussion:

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Brittany Wall and published March 29, 2010 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/9/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

Project Earth – Making the World a Smaller Place

Project Earth is a global networking website for K–12 educators and the public designed to connect people around the world to help solve environmental problems. Its mission is to generate ongoing conversation and collaboration across national boundaries that collectively lead to positive environmental change. Registration is required and member teachers/schools/classrooms are able to showcase their innovative environmental projects, connect and interact with ecologically-minded people around the world (from Minnesota, to Los Lagos, Chile, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia!).  Teachers and students also have the opportunity to participate in environmental contests and earn recognition for efforts.

Last year, Project Earth’s World Environment Day Contest drew winners involved with environmentally conscious projects such as studying how plastic bags affect our environment, and growing food for a school kitchen and composting the waste. Submissions to the 2011 contest are due May 15th. A great project idea for your classroom!

A few  other resources to tap into on this topic include the MSP2 resource guides on Technology and the Environment, Populations and Ecosystems, and Oceans, Climates and Weather.

Beyond Penguins Wins SPORE Award

Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears has been awarded the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) by Science Magazine. The magazine, which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, developed the prize to spotlight the best online materials in science education.

Science editors and a panel of teachers and researchers in the fields select the prize winners. Kimberly Lightle and Jessica Fries-Gaither of the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears staff were invited to write an essay about the project’s history and goals. The essay, Penguins and Polar Bears Integrates Science and Literacy, appears in the January 28 issue of Science.

Even though the magazine is directed at K-5 teachers, much of the content is applicable to the middle grades. Each of the 20 issues covers science concepts such as rocks and minerals, the water cycle, seasons, states and changes of matter, and plants, all in the context of the Arctic and Antarctica. Each issue highlights a literacy strategy, misconceptions, ideas on integrating technology, the research that is going on at the polar regions, and much more! Project staff have also written informational texts that have been differentiated in terms of reading level. The books are available in three versions – including an electronic version with an audio track. The Stories for Students link in the header of the site will take you to all versions of the books.

Print Issues of Beyond Penguins Are Half Price on Black Friday

Readers of the online issues of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears can now access the content in different formats. For example, you can have highlights of issues mailed to you as a full-color, print magazine, or you can download the highlights version on your iPad. The print and electronic versions are generously illustrated with photographs and contain many of the articles from the original online production. We are using MagCloud — a print-on-demand service from Hewlett-Packard that in addition to the print-on-demand service has an iPad application that allows you to download issues from MagCloud onto an iPad for free.

For the print version, you pay printing (20 cents/page) and mailing costs – issues are from $4.80 to $7.20 to print and ship depending on the page count. However, on Black Friday you can save 50% during MagCloud’s Red Friday Mega Sale! From midnight until 12 pm (PST) on Friday November 26th MagCloud will be slashing the production costs on all full-priced magazines by 50%. And don’t worry if the turkey-hangover causes you to miss the mega sale, you can still take advantage of MagCloud’s 25% Off Holiday Sale from 12 pm November 26th through December 31st. You can browse all the Beyond Penguins Highlights on MagCloud at http://bit.ly/aQUTn9.