Connecting Gorongosa Resources to Student Experiences and Communities
A major focus of my teaching practice is engaging students in environmental field research in the local community. I teach at a public high school in Cleveland, Tennessee. My students are juniors and, for the most part, have taken physical science and chemistry prior to taking my Biology I class. We are fortunate to have a greenway running along a stream within walking distance from our school. The greenway is an open outdoor area that is available for public use. Ours is a sidewalk that runs through the city beside a local stream, Mouse Creek. I use this area as my outdoor classroom.
During the ecology unit with my Biology I students, I also utilize the BioInteractive resources focused on Gorongosa National Park. I connect each resource with students’ experiences in our local community.
I begin the unit by showing the beginning (about 15 minutes) of the BioInteractive film, The Guide: A Biologist in Gorongosa. There is an excellent film activity that I use with this video. The film focuses on a young man, Tonga, who dreams of being a tour guide in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. As he progresses toward this goal, he works on conservation efforts in the park, meeting with biologists and community members.
After the first segment (approximately 15 minutes), I lead a class discussion focused on connecting what students have learned from the film to their local community and personal lives. For example, I prompt students to think about parallels between Gorongosa National Park and our local, state, and national parks. They compare plants, wildlife, and park history. Most students have visited one of our parks and they comment on how our parks are dominated by tree species while Gorongosa has a large amount of savanna.
As juniors, my students can relate to Tonga and his focus on trying to determine what path to take toward a future career. In the video, Tonga reveals he will be the first in his community to graduate from high school. I routinely have students who are the first in their family to graduate from high school. The film also shows a scene where Tonga is discussing his future with his father. In class, we share various ways students determine their future education and career goals, including conversations with family. I prompt students to think about and discuss local careers, similar to the one Tonga wants to pursue.
Throughout the ecology unit, I play additional segments of The Guide, approximately 15 minutes each, and lead similar class discussions. Ultimately, students want to know where Tonga is now. So, they look him up and find that he is a conservation manager in Gorongosa National Park.
As we move through our ecology unit, the next BioInteractive resource I use is the activity “Exploring Biomes in Gorongosa National Park,” which has students explore the Gorongosa National Park Interactive Map. In the activity, students read and write about the vegetation, precipitation, and temperature of two biomes found in Gorongosa: tropical rainforest and savanna.
I extend this activity to include our local biome: temperate deciduous forest. We go outside to a nearby wooded area with a stream to make observations. Students also complete online research and create a climatogram of our local area.
Modeling Energy Flow
We then move to discussing energy flow through ecosystems. During this part of the unit, I use the “Creating Chains and Webs to Model Ecological Relationships” activity. This activity focuses on the importance of modeling. Students evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of several models that represent energy flow through an ecosystem: food chains, food webs, and energy pyramids. As part of this activity, students work with cards depicting organisms at varying trophic levels, as well as natural events and anthropogenic activities (such as fires and tourism) that occur in Gorongosa National Park. Each card has an image on one side and information on the reverse side.
Once students complete this activity focused on Gorongosa, they turn their attention to our local ecosystem. They research the animals, plants, natural events, and anthropogenic activities that occur in our community through environmental field labs and online sources. Next, students create paper or digital cards for our area. They can take pictures, download images, or draw. Students utilize these cards and create food chains, food webs, and energy pyramids for our local ecosystem.
We wrap up our unit by focusing on protecting biodiversity. I use the BioInteractive Scientists at Work video Tracking Lion Recovery in Gorongosa National Park and the accompanying “Student Worksheet.” Students learn tracking techniques and methods of protecting wildlife as it recovers in a protected area.
When students complete this activity, we shift to our local focus on red wolves. Red wolves are native to our area and are critically endangered. The nearby Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is home to one of the nation’s red wolf breeding programs. Students work in groups to research the history of red wolves in our area and efforts to breed, release, and monitor them. They then create trifold posters depicting their findings. When possible, we take a field trip to the Reflection Riding Center, where we can actually see the wolves and learn about the program from biologists.
It is important for students to learn about their local ecosystems, as well as ecosystems in other parts of the world. This allows them to make connections to gain a full understanding of ecological concepts. It also empowers them to see how they can protect natural environments in their own community.
Throughout the unit, students become connected to Gorongosa, wanting to know the current status of wildlife in the park. They also become more and more connected to our local ecosystem. Upon completion of our ecology unit, students participate in a cleanup of our greenway and local stream ecosystem. This is part of a larger effort, the Tennessee River Rescue, for which groups across the area clean the Tennessee River and its tributaries. After our cleanup effort, students continue to take ownership of their local greenway and stream, looking for specific species about which they have learned and commenting on and cleaning up additional litter they might see.
Jeannie Long has been teaching for 22 years in Cleveland, Tennessee. She teaches full time at high school and adjunct at community college. Dr. Long teaches a variety of life science courses, including Biology I, Biology II, AP Environmental Science, Aquatic Biology, Scientific Research, and AP Seminar. She has an MS in environmental science and a PhD in science education and focuses on engaging students in environmental field research. In her spare time, Dr. Long enjoys reading and hiking.
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