Ecology for 16 year-olds

Environmental studies have become increasingly integral to modern day curricula. The present state of our earth speaks of this need more eloquently than ever. However as teachers, we need to be clear about certain aspects of this discipline. There is often a tendency to use the term 'environmental' in a mutually interchangeable way with 'ecology'. In an educational scenario where popular jargon about environment has become commonplace, it is important for a teacher to understand this distinction.

Ecology is a scientific discipline. It can be learnt with joy, without sacrificing the rigours of scientific study - in fact it is one area of study that has scope for independent work; where the intellect and a certain quality of intelligence can flower together. It also demands from the teacher a clarity of thought and careful planning that will lead to a learning process that is less pedantic and more interactive.

My experiment in teaching ecology was an attempt to realise these ideas. The aim was to expose the students to basic principles of ecology using different approaches that highlight these principles. A small group of seven students and the diversity of the Rishi Valley habitat to study from were the advantages. The approaches we adopted were chosen by the students themselves, and they were evolution, habitat, community, and population.

One of the students opted to explore the changes undergone by Rishi Valley during the past few years. It was a daunting task which he took up as a challenge. Another decided to undertake a habitat approach for his project. Though predominantly a scrub land, Rishi Valley has a percolation dam that can be used for wetland study, and this was the chosen site. Two students chose the community approach - one the community of a school pond, the other the community of a rock pool. Three students chose to use the population approach. While one chose to study spiders, the other two undertook to study populations that had a significant relevance to the Valley community as a whole - mosquitoes and monkeys. Both these species and their status amongst us are hotly debated topics.

How do these approaches contribute to ecological thought? What is the relevance of these approaches to problem solving in the field? Evolutionary ecology views change over time and gives us an understanding of the influence on the ecosphere due to technology and culture of human species. Habitat is a spatial concept. Its study has a special relevance in the conservation of biodiversity. Community ecology focuses in particular on the biotic components of ecosystems, which is an important consideration for rational conservation management. Population ecology provides an important theoretical basis for examining species expansion and extinction since the very beginnings of life on this planet.

As is evident from the above description, for a study of this type to be meaningful and significant, the students needed to be equipped with certain tools. The first step was to define the objectives of the study. The brain storming session with which we started helped in defining objectives for them. These were posed as questions:

What are the areas in the habitat where changes have occurred?

What kinds of relationships exist in the community?

How have organisms adapted to their environment?

What is the visible impact of human activities? How many of these have been positive or negative to the species / community / habitat studied?

How much were you able to understand about the life of an organism studied by you?

What did you feel as you progressed with the project?

What kinds of overlap exist between these approaches?

The next set of questions revolved around the tools and techniques that could be used for the study. This discussion brought forth suggestions such as:

Tips for observing animals

Using quadrates and transects

Recording techniques

Sample collections and their relevance

Composition of an outdoor study kit.

As the study got under way, each student began to find that despite the initial discussions, a number of unanswered questions kept coming up. One major hurdle which everyone came across was the time factor. Many an interesting observation could not be discussed further due to the "terminator", i.e., the bell. Despite the daily schedules and demands of a boarding school way of life however, each student gathered a lot of data.

At different stages, they also came back to the lab with samples of soils or water for study; they came back to discuss the steps they had undertaken to overcome difficulties. Resource materials were mainly books and people.

Midway through the project, Dr. Stephan Harding, ecologist from Schumacher College arrived. Their discussions with him resulted in new directions for study, new ideas that could be incorporated. The community of rock pool that one student was studying, generated greater enthusiasm and excitement when Dr. Harding informed us that rock pools were being studied by scientists all over the world. He further observed that rock pool communities helped understand the changes in those larger ecosystems where monitoring is difficult. This information served to inspire the students. The relevance of their study was a source of motivation to challenge themselves, and this they did in a manner that in turn inspired their teacher.

What then was the outcome? The study was of short duration and therefore left many unanswered questions. Some objectives were realised, new questions arose as a response to the original ones. Concepts and principles one expects in ecology, namely those of food webs, adaptations, biotic and abiotic communities, pyramid of relationships, succession, climax communities etc. were learned. But when three of the students expressed their desire to continue with the study, I felt that perhaps this project had served to fulfil the hidden objective of a learning process - that is, it had kindled the embers of curiosity in them to continue the process of inquiry.

Not every project, however well planned, can interest all students. Thus disenchantment during such projects is an important lesson for the teacher. The student who chose to study mosquitoes did not find herself interested in it, although the choice washer own.

To conclude, I quote some comments made by students who undertook these projects.

"I learned to really observe.'

"Interesting and educational experience . . .”

"Uninteresting. I couldn't get too interested in it."

".. .couldn't easily forget what I learned.".

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