by Whit Gibbons

August 14, 2016

School has started. Time for teachers to consider ecology and develop students' appreciation for nature. Going outside to observe plants, animals and the habitats they live in is a suitable exercise for science classes from grammar school through college. Teachers invariably find that students take great interest in observing the living world.

John Byrd, an outstanding educator in Tennessee, has his students keep an environmental journal. Such a class exercise accomplishes several educational goals - to hone writing skills, convey observations and ideas and learn to think environmentally. His suggestions for journal entries include observing, asking questions, writing poetry or stories and studying information in books and other sources. An environmental journal could also be a suitable assignment for some language arts classes.

Many topics are suitable for an environmental journal. The most straightforward is to record observations, including animal behavior and patterns of flowering among plants. For example, one observation might be to record how many different kinds of pollinators (bees, flies, beetles etc.) are attracted to fall-blooming plants. A bewildering array of wasps, some strikingly colored, buzz around flowering composites and legumes of late summer and early autumn. Watching wasps from a safe distance is a fun exercise and could be an observation worth recording in a journal. Outdoor observations can be done with student teams in the schoolyard itself. The whole class can benefit from each other's findings through readings in the classroom.

Asking questions is always worthwhile. Why do some birds, like wrens, stay around all year whereas others, like most warblers, begin migrating through in the fall? Why are moths and scarab beetles attracted to lights at night? Why do most oak trees and hickories lose all their leaves in the fall, but live oaks and pine trees stay green year-round?

These and countless other ecological questions may not have simple answers, and often no universally accepted scientific explanation is available. Nonetheless, have students try to find answers in a reliable source, preferably a scientific paper or biology textbook. Make it a goal to ask a question that scientists have not answered satisfactorily. For example, why are female hawks and owls usually larger than males? Many scientific answers and explanations have been offered for this question, but no single one is agreed upon by ornithologists.

Another suggestion is to write an environmental poem or even a short story (with emphasis on "short" if a teacher has to read it or a class has to listen to it). Do these activities on days you don't get out to observe or can't come up with a biological question that intrigues you. "In woods and fields of summer's green / Bugs abound as I have seen. / When winter's brown is near and far, / I can but wonder where they are." Not sure what kind of grade I might get for that verse, but it would provide a jumping-off point for a discussion of insects' life cycles. Or how about a short story told by a rabbit that has just left its hiding place under a bush and encountered a bobcat?

Simply making lists of what plants and animals a student sees during a walk can reveal how diverse the local environment is. Another step is to categorize the flora and fauna observed into taxonomic categories and then gather natural history information about them from reliable sources. This provides an open-ended opportunity for students to learn about their natural surroundings.

You need not be in school to keep an environmental journal. We all are students of ecology because we all have something we can learn about nature. Also, anyone might find some natural phenomenon that has gone unnoticed or undiscovered. Taking a look at your own observations and entries a year or more afterward can be a gratifying and enlightening experience. Keeping an environmental journal can help anyone develop an appreciation of nature and provide reading opportunities that will last a lifetime.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

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