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.

What Are Seed Gene Banks and How Do They Work?

Seed gene banks exist throughout the world. As you might guess, their purpose is to catalog, store, and protect as many varieties of plants as possible. These banks are useful to plant breeders trying to find crop species that are more drought or disease resistant, for example. They also provide a resource for countries in recovery after natural or man-made catastrophes. For example, after the tsunami in Malaysia in 2004, rice growers were able to obtain salt-tolerant varieties of rice not normally gown in that area. However, many seed banks are located in areas of the world where they are susceptible to destruction. Seed banks in Afghanistan and Iraq have been ransacked.

A consortium of organizations has collaborated in order to address this problem and provide a centralized, stable, reliable site for preserving and protecting world crop seeds. On February 28, 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault began operating. The New York Times and ScienceDaily both reported the event. The Times article, Near Arctic, Seed Vault Is a Fort Knox of Food, is accompanied by numerous photographs and a map indicating the location of the vault. The ScienceDaily article, Thousands of Crop Varieties Depart For Arctic Seed Vault, contains one photograph and numerous links to related articles. Both articles describe the project, who is involved with the project, and why.

Did you know there are about 1,200 varieties of banana plants worldwide? Only about half have been preserved. Other food crops exhibit thousands of varieties as well. The Times notes that, in the United States, “eighty percent of maize types that existed in the 1930s are gone.” The rapid loss of crop plants on the planet heightens the need to preserve as many as possible at this time for their potential in serving future generations.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) maintains and coordinates seed gene banks around the world, encompassing 600,000 plant varieties. Its goal is to back up all known varieties of useful plant varieties in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

The National Science Education Standards are sometimes criticized for the lack of emphasis on plant biology. However, the Life Science Content Standard for grades 5-8 allows for elaboration on plant biology in many contexts. There are five big ideas within this content standard, none of which excludes plant biology: structure and function in living systems; reproduction and heredity; regulation and behavior; populations and ecosystems; diversity and adaptations of organisms. Teachers should strive to present instruction inclusive of all kinds of living things with respect to these five big ideas, including crop plants.

Entertain student estimates on the number of varieties of bananas, tomatoes, maize, beans, and so on. Present them with statistics reflecting the actual number of known varieties for the crops you choose. Ask what might differentiate one variety from another. Lead students to the idea of differences in optimal growing conditions and variety in tolerance with respect to things like drought, water quality, disease resistance, and yield. Ideally, you may be conducting an ongoing activity in which students grow, observe, and compare food crop varieties for some of these variables.

Can students think of any reasons to try and preserve this variety? Intended for educators, the article Plant Content in the National Science Education Standards lists several reasons for preserving plant biodiversity by virtue of the plant-derived products we depend on to maintain our lifestyle.

Students might recall the tsunami of 2004 or Hurricane Katrina. Ask them if crops that once thrived in those areas could be expected to thrive just as they did before the disasters. Lead them to the idea of salt residue left in soil. Drops of salt water on a paper towel allowed to dry will provide evidence to help students understand soil could be altered by salt water washing over it. Fresh celery or raw potato allowed to sit in salt water demonstrates the effect of salt on plants. Remind students of the Asian rice growers in the ScienceDaily article who found salt-resistant rice in the seed banks.

Imagine your students harvested 300 seeds from plants grown this year at school and you found a way to preserve them. One hundred years from now, students find those seeds and plant them in a natural setting. What do your students predict the outcomes would be? Will the seeds germinate? Will the plants thrive? Will they flower and produce seeds? What rationale do students provide to support their predictions? Lead them to understand the environment will most likely be altered from what it is now. There may be new pests, viruses, pathogens, and competitors. Tie the discussion to natural selection. Is it safe to assume that seeds preserved today can be planted 100 or 200 years from now with great confidence in their success? Then why preserve them? How should they be managed?

Recall the name “gene bank.” These banks can be conceived of as genetic repositories, not simply seed preservation sites. That means there is potential to isolate and manipulate useful genes from preserved seeds. Thus, it may not be necessary that the preserved seeds thrive but that they lend themselves to gene isolation. Periodic germination of preserved seeds followed by collection of new seeds may simulate the natural selection process and increase the probability that preserved seeds will thrive if germinated hundreds of years from now.

What about plants, such as bananas, whose seeds do not preserve well or are not reliable with respect to germination for various reasons. How can those plant species be preserved? There is no pat answer to this question; thus it is an excellent question for student inquiry. Students may propose things like cryogenics of tissues for later vegetative propagation or genomic sequencing for incorporation into some kind of surrogate seed embryo later.

Here are some additional resources from the Middle School Portal 2 related to issues of plant biodiversity and plant breeding: Thinking Green? Grow Your Own! and Seeds of the World: Journey to Forever.

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 Mary LeFever and published March 7, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 3/27/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

A Corpse Flower Named Woody

Joan Leonard, coordinator of OSU’s Biological Sciences Greenhouse, said a story about her soon-to-bloom corpse flower, named “Woody,” has gone global. The Dispatch published this story about the amorphophallus titanum on Saturday.

Also called the corpse flower for it’s intense rotting meat smell, Leonard said it’s gathering quite a following. Students have reported hearing foreign language news reports, and it hasn’t even flowered yet.

People can track the corpse flowers progress by visiting the website or watching on their webcam. The university has already posted visiting hours for the plant, which is set to bloom in early May.

Celebrate Women’s History Month with STEM Stories

The STEM Stories website features a growing collection of digital resources that highlight the lives and work of individuals involved in STEM fields (mainly women). It combines compelling personal stories and multimedia to interest intermediate and middle school students in STEM subjects and careers.

From the In the Spotlight menu, you’ll meet 10 present-day women who are featured in depth, with interviews, photo albums and more.  They include dolphin communication researcher Diana Reiss, atmospheric chemist Susan Solomon, biologist and astronaut Millie Hughes-Fulford, and robotics engineer Heather Knight. (Heather helped work on the Rube Goldberg machine sequence for the OK-Go music video This Too Shall Pass).  On the Clips tab, the database includes short videos that introduce individuals working in varied STEM careers.  The Profiles tab lets you search biographies about women working in STEM fields throughout history.  Some include photo albums, such as Mary Pennington, Rachel Carson, and Virginia Apgar. (Tip:  double-click on images to see a larger view).

The project team, headed by Lois McLean and Rick Tessman (McLean Media) created STEM Stories with girls in mind, drawing on design ideas from an after-school club for at-risk middle and high school girls. In a 2010 pilot, more than 200 students (Grades 4–7) in Nevada County, California, used the site in classroom activities. In one school, fourth- and seventh-grade students worked in pairs to create pop-up books based on featured individuals. Survey results found no major differences between the responses of boys and girls. In fact, teachers reported that students did not even comment on or question the site’s emphasis on women. And, although the website focuses on personal stories, most students also reported learning something new about science and engineering.

STEM Stories was funded through a grant from the NSF’s Research on Gender in Science in Engineering Program (#HRD-0734004). New content is being added every month, including more current and historical photos, profiles, videos, and interactives.

To introduce your students to the STEM Stories site, try these activities:

STEM Stories Treasure Hunt

STEM Stories Crossword Puzzle

STEM Stories Lesson Ideas

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. Post updated 4/19/2012.

Free Professional Development Webinars

We’ve got four free professional development webinars coming up in the month of April. The first two are specifically for middle school math and science teachers. The second two are for elementary teachers but plenty of the content would be appropriate for older students. Librarians and media specialists, science specialists, informal educators, and others will find them useful as well. Please join us for one or all!

Getting to the Good Stuff: Online Resources for Middle School Math and Science
April 7, 2009, 3:30-4:30pm EST
Presenters: Robert Payo, National Science Digital Library and Kim Lightle, Middle School Portal 2

With huge volumes of materials on the Internet, how can teachers find the good stuff? We’ll explore how the National Science Digital Library and the Middle School Portal 2: Math & Science Pathways project addresses this question. We’ll show you how to find quality materials through organized collections, bundled resources that build teacher content knowledge, and online tools that facilitate better alignment of resources to teaching and promote broader community discussion through social networking.
Registration information: http://nmsa.org/ProfessionalDevelopment/Webinars/tabid/1011/Default.aspx?PageContentID=303

Global Warming and the Polar Regions
April 28, 2009, 3:30-4:30pm EST
Presenters: Jessica Fries-Gaither, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears and Kim Lightle, Middle School Portal 2

How is climate change shifting earth’s energy balance? In this seminar, we’ll provide content knowledge as well as resources for the middle school science classroom.
Registration information: http://nmsa.org/ProfessionalDevelopment/Webinars/tabid/1011/Default.aspx?PageContentID=303

Ecosystems: Life in the Polar Extremes
Tuesday, April 7, 2009, 6:30-7:45 pm EST
Presenter: Jessica Fries-Gaither, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears

At first glance, the polar regions may seem barren and lifeless. Yet there are surprisingly rich terrestrial and marine food webs that can be used to illustrate ecological concepts, relationships, and changes. In this web seminar, we’ll discuss the Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems and their response to climate change. Through examples of resources, lessons, activities, books, and teaching strategies, we’ll explore common ecological misconceptions and exemplary science and literacy instructional resources from the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears cyberzine.
Registration information: https://cc.readytalk.com/r/ae7yw1mqzvzb

Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears: Arctic and Antarctic Birds
April 21, 2009, 6:30pm-8:00pm EST
Presenter: Jessica Fries-Gaither, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears

Did you know that of the 17 penguin species, only a few live or nest in Antarctica? Or that many of our familiar bird species from the mid-latitudes migrate to breed in polar regions? While we’re all familiar with Emperor penguins, there are many other fascinating birds that call the polar regions home at least part of the year. In this session, develop your own content knowledge and learn how to use birds to promote inquiry, teach physical science concepts, and integrate hands-on science instruction with reading strategies and other literacy skills.

Registration information: http://learningcenter.nsta.org/products/symposia_seminars/NSDL3/Webseminar7.aspx