Bugs and plants create excitement about fourth-grade science

November 1, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

Rachel Lee (left), Caleb McDonald, Hailey Warren and Brian Chan (hidden, right), four of Grand Ridge Elementary School teacher Becky Rappin’s fourth-grade students, make observations on their terrarium after placing isopods — common pill bugs —in the soil. By Greg Farrar

When Becky Rappin asks who might want to help transport crickets, there is no shortage of volunteers. Hands go up all around Rappin’s fourth-grade classroom at Grand Ridge Elementary School.

The crickets are just one element in the students’ study of ecosystems, that study being part of the new science curriculum implemented this year at elementary schools throughout the Issaquah School District.

“There’s a lot of excitement about this program,” Rappin said. “There is just so much hands on, it gets kids thinking and observing.”

Parent volunteer Lisa Porter said students put together from scratch the terrariums and aquariums lined up at the back of Rappin’s classroom. The first step was washing out the plastic bottles that are the basic components.

With the cone-shaped top half of the bottles removed, the bottoms of bottles were filled with dirt, and students planted alfalfa, rye and mustard plants. There are also leaves scattered in the makeshift terrariums.

On this day, for the first time, students will be adding live insects — isopods or potato bugs and the already mentioned crickets — to the terrariums. Also made out of the bottom half of bottles, small aquariums already have residents including plants, pond snails and mosquito fish or guppies.

According to Rappin, eventually the terrariums and aquariums will be joined together into one unified, self-contained ecosystem. Plants in the aquariums will feed the fish, and evaporating water from the aquarium will nourish the terrarium plants that in turn will feed the insects. She urges her students to observe and take notes as the experiment proceeds.

“It’s fun” is the most common quote on the terrarium project from Rappin’s students. However, with a little coaxing they can tell you a lot more about the plants and insects they are working with.

Ananya Saboo, 9, said the isopods start life being transparent, as a defense mechanism against predators. Graziel Dyzon, 9, reported the bugs have six legs on each side. Asked what the insects will eat inside the terrarium, Ananya, Graziel and their lab partners don’t just answer “plants,” but begin debating what plant will be eaten first.

Ananya adds the basic point of the experiment is to see how organisms work together in an ecosystem. She corrects a reporter who talks about animals being in the ecosystem. The proper word is “organisms,” Ananya said, as there are plants as well as animals present.

Rappin said the unit on ecosystems required plenty of prep time on the part of teachers, who she later added received no formal training on the materials involved. But she said instructors met with each other and carefully mapped out how they would proceed. Rappin made a point of stating the unit could never have proceeded with out the help of parent volunteers.

One of 15 building leaders named to help implement the district’s new science curriculum, Rappin noted she helped sort of “field test” many of the materials last year. She is a big proponent of a hands-on approach in teaching science, an approach she said is now a major component of the district’s elementary science studies.

“You’re not teaching systems or applications in isolation,” Rappin said.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or tcorrigan@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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