Summer School – Day 13 – Climate Change, Biomes and Food Webs

We covered a lot of ground today. We started out with a lab activity, since we hadn’t had time to explore biomes fully the previous day. I started them out with a super cool Google Earth file that I found here. One of the resources is an interactive Google Earth map with layers that show various aspects of climate – average winter temperatures, average summer temperatures, that sort of thing – along with a layer that shows the location and distribution of biomes, worldwide.

After working with this data for a bit, I handed out an outline of a continent, with the instructions that they should place the biomes wherever they wanted, as long as it was in keeping with the concepts we’d just learned – which biomes are found at which latitudes, how landforms like mountains can affect climate, that sort of thing. And yes, this was another coloring project! (Always popular). Although we hadn’t talked about climate change yet (that would happen next), I set that up by asking them to think through what sort of shifts we might see in the location of biomes, if temperatures were to rise by even a few degrees.

After lunch, we talked about the movement of energy and materials through ecosystems, including the concept of food webs. For lab, we did an activity that I adapted a couple of years ago for an upper division biology course: “Trophic Interactions in the Kelp Forest: An Ecological Detective Story.” My original inspiration for this activity, an NSF case study, can be found here. In the past, I’d provided students with a matrix of trophic (feeding) relationships, and asked them to create a food web diagram:

I’d always assigned this as homework, so I needed to make some adjustments to turn it into an in-class activity. The biggest change was the addition of some little “Food Web Cards,” each of which had a picture of an organism, along with the details of what that organism eats, and also what it gets eaten by. Each group received a complete set of cards, and instead of giving them a completed matrix, they had to come up with that on their own.

Then, instead of doing their food webs online, we made good use of the white boards, and some colorful wet erase markers. (This ended up being not ideal for me – it took me AGES to clean off all the marker, since it needed to be sprayed down. But it was worth it).

The activity went REALLY well! Everything worked out just as I had hoped, and they did a great job of coming up with their food webs. A REALLY good job . . . in the past, I’d had complaints from students that the matrix was too complicated, and it took them too long to complete. I think maybe the difference was that doing this in class gave them plenty of time and space to really get into it, whereas the attitude for doing it as homework might have been to speed through it as quickly as possible? I don’t know . . . all I know is that my non-majors totally owned this activity, so next time some upper division bio students try and tell me it’s “too hard,” I’m going to have a rebuttal for them haha. ūüėČ

While they were drawing food web diagrams, I did a bit of kelp forest artwork of my own:

I really liked the way this went using the little cards . . . I think I’ll incorporate that into the activity for the upper division students, as well.

Selected Materials

110 Climate and Biomes lab activity
Google Earth file can’t be uploaded to WordPress, but should be available at the link in the first paragraph
110 Trophic Interactions in the Kelp Forest SU17
Kelp Forest Food Web Cards

Summer School – Day 11 – Vertebrate Diversity

Another favorite day! And another rotation lab. Today’s lectures focused on the diversity of vertebrates. We started out with chordates, and then followed the major groups all the way through their transition to land. In the morning, we covered fish, amphibians, and (some) reptilian vertebrates. Then, we stopped for some lab activities that allowed them to explore further the transition to land.

First, an activity from the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Case Study Teaching in¬†Science, “A Strange Fish, Indeed,” This interrupted case study describes the extraordinarily COOL discovery by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer of a living Coelacanth – a sarcopterygian fish from an order believed extinct for 70 million years. This is one of my very, very favorite biology stories, and I did touch on it briefly in lecture, but working through this case study, which¬†allowed the story to unfold gradually, was wonderful. On the whole, I’ve found that the case study activities put out by the NSF¬†are excellent. I used this one as is, without any modifications.

I also showed them this adorable music video about Tiktaalik – another transitional fish.


We ended the morning with this cool interactive activity from HHMI: Great Transitions, Transition to Land

After lunch, it was time for probably my favorite lecture of the entire semester . . . *drumroll* . . . DINOSAURS!!!!!!! I do love dinosaurs, always have, so this is a big deal for me! When the students return from lunch, I have the “Jurassic Park” theme song playing to set the mood. I have animated slides, including the most epic image ever created:

The dinosaur lecture has a bunch more cool stories – how Othniel Marsh put the wrong head on his “Brontosaurus” skeleton; why the original name for Megalosaurus was Scrotum humanum; the problem with the “Velociraptors” in the Jurassic Park films.


And of course, the question that everyone wants answered: WHEN WILL I BE ABLE TO GENETICALLY ENGINEER MY OWN BABY DINOSAUR? This leads to a discussion of cloning, which, sadly, will probably not ever allow us to make baby dinosaurs, BUT there are some other genetic techniques that will – our first attempts have led to the majestic CHICKEN-O-SAURUS!!!!!

After lecture, more fun during the vertebrate rotation lab! The trick with this lab is choosing which of the LOADS OF COOL SPECIMENS from our Vertebrate Museum to pull out and put on display.

This time around, in addition to some specimens from each of the major groups (fishes, amphibians, “reptiles,” birds, and mammals), I went with a couple of stations that would allow them to explore function: skulls, to look primarily at the teeth, and hypothesize about diet, and bird feet, to determine whether they were for perching, wading, swimming, grasping prey, etc.

Once again, they really enjoyed everything! And one of my students said something really sweet at the end of the day. He’d asked if I’d set up the entire display myself (I answered honestly that I’d had assistance in pulling out the museum specimens, but I’d set up the classroom myself. During the summer semester, I am solely responsible for most of the lab set up and tear down, since I’m not technically employed by the Biology Department, but instead by the Department of Extended Education. I have access to department materials, but not the same level of support that happens during the regular semesters).

After I explained this, he said, “Thank you so much for all the hard work you put into setting all this up for us.”

It meant a lot to me, to know that he’d been enjoying the lab activities, and appreciating the work that went into putting them together. Seriously presh. <3


Selected Materials

110 Vertebrate Lab SU17
110 Mystery Skull Chart

Mystery Skull Station 
(Adapted from this activity, developed by Arizona State University:

Summer School – Day 10 – Plants and Invertebrates

I know I keep saying this, but THIS IS ANOTHER OF MY FAVORITE DAYS OF THE SEMESTER! Today was pretty much fun from start to finish. In the morning, lecture on the diversity of plants, including the various adaptations that allowed plants to make the transition from the ocean onto land. After the lecture, I’d arranged for us to have a tour of the Tropical Greenhouse on campus. The greenhouse is across campus from the science building, so along the way I gave them a little walking tour of some of my favorite plants on campus, including a few Ginkgo trees, a Cycad (my all time fave), several ferns, redwood trees, and the Butterfly Garden. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures along the campus tour, but I have loads of pics from our greenhouse tour! We were welcomed to the greenhouse by Kandis, who provides instructional support for the Biology Department, and she is an exceptionally gracious hostess!

To be honest, for most of my time at SSU, I didn’t know we had a tropical greenhouse. It was only when I was teaching this class last summer that I found out about it, but now I want to bring as many students here as possible. It’s not all that big, but there are so many GORGEOUS plants!

While we were there, I asked everyone to draw at least one of the plants in their field notebooks, and that occupied much of their time, but we also had time to wander around and talk about the different types of plants we were seeing.

All four main groups of plants were represented here: Bryophytes (including mosses), seedless vascular plants (including ferns), gymnosperms (evergreens), and angiosperms (flowering plants). Mostly ferns and angiosperms. Here are some highlights:

Here are a few student drawings:

Kandis did a couple of particularly cool things while we were there . . . first, she cut off a branch of the rubber tree, so we could see the sap ooze from the plant (and yes, that’s really rubber)! I remember having a rubber tree in the backyard of the house where I grew up, but I don’t think I knew sap would come out like that. (Probably a good thing for the tree; if I’d known, I’d have been cutting off branches all the time).

Kandis also gave everyone a cutting off of a spider plant that needed to be trimmed back anyway. So, we all ended up with adorable little spider plant babies to take home with us, perfect examples of asexual reproduction! (The big plant pictured below is the parent).

Everyone had a fantastic time investigating plants on campus, and then it was time for lunch. When we got back, it was time to move on to the next topic: ANIMALS! In particular, invertebrates – animals that don’t have backbones. I’d set up the classroom as a rotation lab, with a whole bunch of stations: Sponges, Cnidarians, Molluscs and Annelids, Crustaceans, Horseshoe Crab, Arachnids and Insects (including some live specimens; we took a mini-field trip upstairs to view the tarantula and stick insects in one of the 1st floor displays), and Echinoderms. I’m honestly not sure which part of today they liked better – plants, or animals. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all super cool!

Sponges, Mulloscs, and Annelids:


Here’s a cool video I took of a snail scraping algae off the side of the tank with a specialized structure called a radula:


Arthropods, including Crustaceans, and Insects:

Echinoderms (these might be my favorite. Their tube feet are SO CUTE):

Such a fantastic day! And we’ve got more fun in store tomorrow, when we talk about VERTEBRATES!

School Update

Heh. I just found an entry I started writing last Friday . . . and never managed to post. Mostly because school is keeping me busy. Busy in a good way, but I’m ending most days feeling mentally (and because of that, physically) exhausted.

Statistics is easy; Biology is mostly easy except for having to memorize the ^#*%^@ cell cycle. (Can’t I be a biologist without knowing about mitosis and meiosis? Okay, so I can’t. Whatever. *pouts*). Oh, and Thomas Hunt Morgan? Let’s dig him up out of his grave and beat him with a shovel (w+ . . . WHY????). Physics was insanely hard for me at first, not so much because of the physics, but because of the math needed to do the problems – my algebra skills were . . . rusty, to put it mildly. (Surprisingly, my trig skills are just fine, which is a relief). In the past week, though, I’ve put in a lot of time and effort (and a couple of sessions with a tutor), and I think I’m back where I need to be with the math. And the physics. We’ll see – I just got home from taking my first Physics exam, and I think I did fine. There weren’t any problems that made me think, “WTF?” and I’m pretty sure I did the one write-your-answer problem correctly (the rest of the test was multiple choice). Anyone want to have a go at it?

George and Alfred are brothers who drive race cars. (They’re also apparently not that smart, as you’ll see in a bit). George’s car accelerates at 3.00 m/s2, while Alfred’s is a bit slower: 1.50 m/s2. They set up their cars on a race track, 1.00 x 10^3 meters apart, facing one another, and from rest, drive towards one another. How long will it take them to crash into one another, and at what distance from George’s starting position will this crash occur?*

So, my brain has been tired lately, but I’m still feeling like I’m hanging in there as far as schoolwork is concerned. Plus, I have friends in Biology now (we have lunch together, and study together, and work out at the gym together, all of which is lovely), and I have people to chat with in both of my other classes. (I wouldn’t call any of them “friends” yet, but it’s still good).

Physics lab is fun – on Wednesday, we got to fire steel balls out of a little “cannon.” And in Biology lab, we got to mate drosophila flies on the computer like crazy (I deliberately did some pairings that I knew were LETHAL! Bwahahahahahah)! Okay, so it’s probably not quite as interesting as actually breeding the fruit flies themselves, and seeing what happens, but the computer model is much faster. ūüėÄ

My son, btw, was a bit scandalized by the fruit fly experiment. He said, “What did you do? Lock the flies together in a bedroom with a ‘do not disturb’ sign, and then wait for them to make kissy noises?” *facepalms* Of course, he was even more traumatized the previous week when we played with Mr. Potato Heads in bio lab. And yes, we made them have sex with one another, to see what would happen to the offspring. Mr. Potato Head Sex! W00t! (That really was the title of the lab). Genetics. Fun stuff. ūüėÄ

Nothing quite so interesting in Stats. We’re doing a project for which we had to collect data, and the group I’m in decided that we were going to poll students on their majors, and see the breakdown of male & female, and whether they were science majors, non-science majors, or undeclared. We stood outside the library asking people about their majors as they walked by, and it was really not fun. People are damned suspicious when you walk up and ask if they are willing to participate in a survey. Even though ours was only ONE question. (Then again, when I see people wanting to ask me survey questions, I run in the opposite direction, too, so I guess it’s only fair).