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.

Learning to Protect the Environment Is the First Step to Climate Literacy According to Newest Issue of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle

Teachers of young children have the difficult task of taking the first steps to prepare children for a climate-literate adulthood while not overwhelming them with complex science concepts and a sense of helplessness. The latest issue of the professional online magazine for K-5 teachers Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle advocates providing an engaging look at our environment along with everyday steps all of us can take to protect the world we live in.

Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle bases its bimonthly themes on the seven Essential Principles of the Climate Sciences, developed by science, government, and nongovernment agencies for learners of all ages.

The theme of the sixth issue is the essential principle “We Change Earth’s Climate.” Two professional development articles, Humans: A Force of Nature and Essential Principle 6: Correlation to Standards and Curriculum Connections, give teachers a wide-ranging discussion of the generally accepted causes of climate change globally and show how the concepts align with K-5 national science education standards. In addition, the articles identify appropriate classroom resources and assessment strategies.

The magazine emphasizes integrating science and literacy teaching with an article on the reading strategy Making Connections and other features. The original story, Life in the Greenhouse, is presented at two reading levels and in a variety of formats, including electronic book, for differentiated instruction. The virtual bookshelf describes children’s trade books for further reading about the environment.

Teachers will also find suggestions for using lessons and activities from selected web sites in unit plans for K-2 and 3-5 grades. A feature called Take Action! offers specific conservation steps young people can take in the classroom and the home.

Harnessing social media for instruction is the subject of an article about collaboration with the school librarian. Another article highlights interactive resources for the elementary classroom.

Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). It is modeled on an award-winning NSF-funded project Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears: Integrating Literacy and Science in K-5 Classrooms.

The project is produced at the School of Teaching and Learning, College of Education and Human Ecology, Ohio State University (OSU). Kimberly Lightle, director of digital libraries in the college, is the principal investigator for the project and a feature writer for the online magazine. Jessica Fries-Gaither, an educational resource specialist at OSU, is the project director. For more information about the project, email fries-gaither.1@osu.edu.

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: A Middle School Perspective

Current events provide us with unique learning opportunities – ones that we need to take advantage of even if the consequences of that event are tragic. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is one such event. Not that it is the first oil spill that has had an impact on U.S. shores but it is by far the worst.

The last oil spill that most people can remember is the Exxon Valdez spill. It’s hard to believe that the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened in 1989 – 21 years ago. At the time, it seemed like we couldn’t ever have a worse spill. It was a watershed moment in U.S. environmental history and changed the way we consider and deal with oil and chemical spills in this country. On the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill a movie, Hindsight and Foresight: 20 Years After the Exxon Valdez Spill, was released. The movie reviews the initial stages of the oil spill, shows how it changed U.S. laws and regulations, and identifies challenges for the future as it asks the questions: What does the twentieth anniversary of the spill mean, and what have we learned? Maybe not a lot, unfortunately.

The following resources provide amazing and tragic images of the spill, a chemistry perspective, a visual perspective (just how big is the spill compared to your town), and a podcast and lessons and resources collected by the Ohio Resource Center.

Gulf Oil Spill Could Eclipse Exxon Valdez Disaster
Slide show from NPR. An oil spill that threatened to eclipse even the Exxon Valdez disaster spread out of control and drifted inexorably toward the Gulf Coast as fishermen rushed to scoop up shrimp and crews spread floating barriers around marshes.

C&EN Special Issue: Disaster in the Gulf
Chemical & Engineering News, the magazine that goes to all members of the American Chemical Society, has devoted a special issue to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The articles are mostly available to anyone, but a few of them are only available to ACS members. They provide important scientific background for the oil spill, much of it useful for classroom discussions.

How Big Is the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?
See exactly where the oil spill is located in the Gulf of Mexico, and compare the size of the spill to the size of a city you are familiar with.

Oil Spills
The page has a number of visualizations and videos of the Deep Water Horizon incident as well as the Exxon Valdez along with general models of oil spills and software for modeling them. There are also teaching activities and materials for talking about these events in the classroom as well as a list of references that may be of use in the classroom. The content is targeted at undergraduate geoscience classrooms but if you are looking for a deeper understanding of what is happening this is a great place to go.

The Science of Oil Spills – Grades 6-8
The Ohio Resource Center has pulled together resources that support teaching and learning of multiple aspects of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast oil spill. You’ll find a 10 minute podcast where Terry Shiverdecker and Jessica Fries-Gaither discuss how middle school teachers can use an Earth science systems approach to incorporate oil spill activities into their instruction as well as lessons, activities, and information that focus on everything from environmental aspects to the dispersants that are being used. Resources for K-2, 3-5, and 9-12 are also provided.

Connect with colleagues and talk about what you are doing in your middle school science classroom at the Middle School Portal 2: Math and Science Pathways (MSP2) social network – http://msteacher2.org.

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 12/09/2011.

Connecting Classrooms, Sharing Real Data

This article first appeared in Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears online magazine April 1, 2008. The article has been modified to include middle school math and science examples. All versions of this article are licensed under a Creative Commons License.


Collaborative and real-time data projects engage students in collecting and sharing local data; communicating with other students around the world; using and analyzing “pooled” data from web-based databases; and accessing unique, primary source information. Even though there is no substitute for direct experiences and active investigation, extending the realm of inquiry through electronic communications can greatly enrich and extend an inquiry approach to science and math teaching.

These kinds of projects are highly motivating to students because they bring classrooms together from across the country and globe in shared learning experiences. Students are required to go beyond their own experience, to share with others, and to consider alternative points of view. Not only do students share data, they share perspectives and cultures. What could be more exciting?

Some wonderful collaborative and real-time data projects have been available online for years. To get a feel for the breadth of available projects, try a few searches in the Internet Projects Registry from the Global School Network (GSN) and in the KIDPROJ index of projects. You will find lists of projects from around the world that cover many disciplines. You can search for projects specific to your curriculum and students’ age levels and even design, post, and moderate a project that your class and others can join. You can also subscribe to both web sites’ listservs to get e-mail updates on new projects when they are listed.

Featured Projects

K-12: Track Spring’s Journey North
Teachers and students in K-12 classrooms are invited to participate in Journey North’s annual global study of wildlife migration and seasonal change. A free Internet-based citizen science project, Journey North enables students in 11,000 schools to watch the wave of spring as it unfolds. Students monitor migration patterns of monarch butterflies, hummingbirds, whooping cranes, and other animals; the blooming of plants; and changing sunlight, temperatures, and other signs of spring. Students share their local observations with classmates across North America and beyond, and look for patterns on real-time maps. As they put local observations into a global context – and connect with field scientists – participants are better prepared to explore how climate and other factors affect living things.

Each Journey North study features many entry points and resources that address learning standards: Journey North for Kids reading booklets and lessons, stunning photos and video clips, weekly migration updates, interactive maps, instructional units, and compelling migration stories.

Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education: Collaborative Projects

Noon Day Project
The goal of the Noon Day Project is to have students measure the circumference of the earth using a method that was first used by Eratosthenes over 2000 years ago. Students at various sites around the world will measure shadows cast by a meter stick and compare their results. From this data students will be able to calculate the circumference of the earth.

International Boiling Point Project
The purpose of this project is to discover which factor in the experiment (room temperature, elevation, volume of water, or heating device) has the greatest influence on boiling point.

Down the Drain
How much water is used in homes everyday? Would you be surprised to learn that according to the USGS the average American uses between 80-100 gallons (approx. 300 – 375 liters) of water per day? Do people in other parts of the world use more or less water than Americans? This collaborative project helps students find out the answers to these questions. By collecting data on water usage from people around the world students will be able to see how their water use compares to others and determine what they might do to use less water.

Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education: Real Time Data Projects

Wonderful World of Weather
By using hands-on activities and real-time data investigations, students can develop a basic understanding of how weather can be described in measurable quantities, such as temperature, wind, and precipitation. The real-time data lessons also address topics such as climate, cloud classification, and severe storms. Students use the Weather Underground web site to collect and analyze weather from around the world. Three sets of activities are included: Introductory Activities, Real-Time Data Activities, and Language Arts Activities. A Literature Connection page with selected prose and poetry with a weather or season theme is a part of the site.

Musical Plates
Earthquakes, a scientific and physical phenomenon, affect our lives in many ways. In this project, students use Real-Time earthquake and volcano data from the Internet to explore the relationship between earthquakes, plate tectonics, and volcanoes.

The Stowaway Adventure
This multidisciplinary Internet-based learning experience has been designed to expose students to real world problem solving through unique uses of instructional technologies. In particular, students will use real time data from the Internet to track a real ship at sea, determine its destination and predict when it will arrive. In addition, they will have the opportunity to monitor the weather conditions at sea and predict when rough weather might impact on the ship’s arrival time. The focus is on math concepts and navigation.

The GLOBE Program
The GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) Program brings together students, teachers, and scientists from around the world to learn more about the environment. Students use established protocols to collect environmental data locally. The data are shared using a global database to further the understanding of Earth as a system. For a school or classroom to submit data for any of the projects, at least one teacher must be trained in the GLOBE science measurement protocols and education activities by attending a GLOBE Teacher Workshop.

However, data from around the world has been archived since 1995 and can be accessed and downloaded by country, state, or region, or specific school by anyone. The Teacher’s Guide, which contains hundreds of lessons, protocols, and field guides, is searchable by grade band and concept.

ePals offers K-12 students and teachers around the world a free and safe environment for building and exchanging knowledge based on protected connectivity tools, evidence-based curricula and authentic, collaborative learning experiences. The ePals Global Learning Community is the largest online community of K-12 learners, enabling more than half a million educators and millions of students across 200 countries and territories to safely connect, exchange ideas, and work together. ePals projects cover the topics of global warming, habitats, maps and others.

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 4/14/2012.

Finding the Science in Recycling

Few topics are easier to relate to a student’s everyday life than recycling. Many of the materials that are recyclable are used in the home and the classroom. These materials and the recycling process can be used to illustrate concepts in science. The resources here employ research techniques, games, and projects.

Recycle City
A citywide view of recycling is presented in this site designed for classroom use by the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to learning about recycling possibilities in homes, public places, and businesses, students play the role of city manager and help residents learn to recycle, reduce, and reuse waste. Extension ideas are included.

Talking Trash
Writers for the online Why Files interview people in the field about the cost-effectiveness of recycling, covering such topics as the market for recycled paper, new techniques, and the safety of recycled industrial waste.

Visiting a Recycling Plant
In video segments from ZOOM, a PBS show, a young person learns how paper is recycled. The background essay gives an overview of recycling and discussion questions.

Everyday is Earth Day: Realistic Ways to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
Step-by-step instructions for a research project on waste disposal are found here. Teams explore the pros and cons of the various methods of reducing, reusing, and recycling products their families use. They also create an ad campaign to convince others to recycle.

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 12/07/2011.