Let me start by apologizing that it took so long to get this blog post up and running! To be honest, the past two months have been absolutely exhausting. Whale Day, followed by prom, followed by state testing – I have just been in a deficit in all areas of my life! For the first time in a while I feel like I can breathe! So without further ado, here is the EcoTower project!
Where I got the idea from:
The year before I started teaching, I attended a week long professional development opportunity sponsored by the Department of Forestry aka “Ecology Teacher Camp.”
For a week, we learned about all sorts of ecological lessons to bring into the classroom (many were Project WILD sponsored, I highly suggest checking them out here). Although all of the activities were AMAZING, for many of them, I could not realistically implement in my classroom due to our geographical location. BUT towards the end of the trip, we learned about EcoTowers, which I knew I could implement successfully!
What are EcoTowers and Prep-Work by Students:
EcoTowers are a twist on the typical biology in a bottle project. The kids must use all of their knowledge about ecology to create a successful self-sustained ecosystem in a bottle. Before construction, students must research other biology in a bottle projects online (here’s a great link). They then draw and label a detailed sketch of their bottle. Typically, they will go back and edit this sketch as they are constructing, but this is a great jumping off point to get the entire group on the same page. Students then complete a pre-lab section of their EcoTower packet and include the following:
- Design of a food chain with a primary order consumer (secondary order consumers can be done, but is more challenging. I strongly encourage students to aim for this though)
- Consider how the biomass pyramid will dictate how much of each organism they can include
- Include necessary components in the soil and roots to ensure the nitrogen cycle is continuous
- Consider the water cycle and how it will flow
- Consider the oxygen and carbon cycles and ensure cell respiration and photosynthesis is occurring
- Indicate abiotic and biotic factors and the purpose of each in the ecosystem
The biggest role of the teacher during this time is to facilitate the learning. Do not-and I repeat DO NOT- give your students the answers. A great example is that a group always wants to include fish as well as put fertilizer in the soil so their plants grow. Instead of pointing out immediately that the nitrogen levels would become too high for the fish, I encourage students to research nutrient levels the fish requires in the water. Then, I ask the group to discuss run-off (which we had earlier learned about in class during notes). Typically, as the conversation evolves, the students start to think about the fertilizer entering the water and how that will impact the fish. My goal during this conversation is to ask probing questions, not to provide the answers. This can be really challenging for teachers who like to be in complete control, but I promise it is totally worth it!
Design & Construction:
Last year, I told my students they had to include two chambers in their EcoTowers. This year, due to a lack of time, the requirement was to include only one. However, most kids wanted to create elaborate EcoTowers and did multiple chambers anyway (which I LOVED).
Students are required to bring in a empty and clean 2L bottle. I usually have a few on hand for the groups that come from low income families or lack transportation to the store. Pro Tip: Orange flavor soda bottles and soda bottles green in color don’t usually support successful ecosystems. I provide my students rocks, sand, grass seeds, soil, packaging tape, and scissors (all things I have accumulated in my classroom throughout the year). However, students must bring in any other items they would like. The beauty of this project is that the students can bring in things they find in nature for FREE (grasshoppers, worms, dirt, rocks, elodea, etc.) Some students choose to spend money on buying aquatic plants and special soil, but there really is no need.
As for including critters, nothing with a vertebrae is allowed, besides very specific types of fish. Goldfish and guppies are the only fish allowed in the project. Since the EcoTowers sit next to the windowsill, they are heated by the sun and the guppies due fine. Any other fish really doesn’t do well since it is in stagnant water. If students choose to include fish, I make sure they thoroughly think about space, food chains, and the biomass pyramid. Although I do not give away the answers (since I want to provoke genuine learning) I have to make sure the fish will be put into EcoTowers that are thoroughly thought through. The lady at PetSmart HATES me and this project because she thinks the guppies don’t live. However, as long as the EcoTowers are next to a window and students think through all aspects, the fish do well! As a personal preference, my students aren’t allowed to include spiders or cockroaches. I just don’t want them escaping and getting out in my room. From my experience, organisms that do well, include:
- Guppies & goldfish
- grass/grass seeds
For the next four weeks, students make weekly observations of their EcoTowers. There is a section in their packet where they write one paragraph describing their EcoTowers and any changes that have occurred. Next year, I am going to include a section where they take weekly pictures and compose a powerpoint to show the changes over time! In the observations, students must include what cycles seem to be working, and which cycles seem to be breaking down and WHY they think they aren’t working. At the end of the four weeks, its always super exciting to see whose EcoTower is thriving!
What I also LOVE about this project is that when the students come into my classroom, nearly all of them head over to the EcoTowers to check out their project. It’s a fun and easy way to keep the kids engaged and interested in coming to class. To be honest, my students this year weren’t too excited about completing this project. They were all sort of complaining about it, since it seemed like a lot of work. I’m not going to lie, this totally killed my teaching battery because this project is AWESOME and my kids loved it last year. But after reflecting, last year we completed this project in the beginning of the year, whereas this year we did it two weeks before state testing. I think this year my kids were starting to feel the stress of state testing and were just exhausted (like me). BUT what is impressive is that even though they complained initially, once they got started on construction, they bought into the project and now they love seeing the progress of their EcoTowers. So hey, I think that’s a win and I’ll take it!
Please reach out if you have any questions, I highly suggest giving this a go in your classroom!
Thanks for keeping up with my teaching journey!