Thursday, March 3, 2016

Teaching about Ecosystems through Simulation

I absolutely love doing simulations with my kids. Anytime you can get kids to put themselves into a situation and experience it for themselves, they are bound to learn. This year my students are studying Ecosystems as one of their science units. I put a lot of thought into how I could make this unit engaging, and I kept coming back to the idea of doing a simulation because my kids have enjoyed the other simulations we've done so much.

The end result of all this thinking was this Food Web Simulation! During the activity students take on the role of an animal that needs to find water and food in order to survive. The animals fall into the categories of herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore. Each animal only eats certain other animals or plants, and many of them can be eaten of course. I assigned specific movements to the animals, which I expect the kids to do while they run the simulation. This adds a fun element, but also is important to the conversation later.

Each kid has a card that tells them how their animal moves, what they eaten, what hunts them, and has space provided to collect stickers to show the food and water they have collected. 

I set up stations around the school yard, within boundaries but spread out, for the animals to venture to for food and water. I told the kids they had a limited amount of time to hunt for resources, reminded them of the importance of moving the way their animal should move, and let them go!

I put a lot of effort into balancing these roles and planning it so that I could run the simulation in different ways to get my students thinking. 

Simulation #1:

First, my students ran through the simulation with everything in place in a normal way. I made no alterations to the basic set up of the simulation.  The vast majority of the kids were successful this time around. Some great observations were made by my students though! For example:
-Everyone kept catching me! I think it's because my shirt is so bright!
-It was hard to find Ann because her shirt is green and brown.
-Once one animal found the water, a bunch more found it easily.
-It was easy for me to find the animals I needed to hunt because I could see them hopping, but it was hard to catch them because they could move faster than me!

And so on! The simulation led to a great discussion and I had to pick and choose between all the teachable moments that were popping up!

Simulation #2:

We ran the simulation again, only this time I adjusted the number of herbivores so that there were fewer than necessary for everyone in the game to survive. It definitely became a "survival of the fittest" situation! This really showed the kids how quickly a food chain can start to collapse, but as one kid pointed out, "I couldn't find the animals I needed, so I just went and found plants instead." This helped drive the point home that the most successful animals have adapted to  eat multiple food sources. Another great conversation popped up, and I loved when one kid made the connection, "No wonder the pandas in China are going extinct, they only eat bamboo!"

Simulation #3:

This time I set it up so that there were plenty of prey and other resources, but also an overabundance of students acting as predators. This time around an interesting thing happened. My kids are really sensitive to each other, and after playing a round where some students survived and others didn't, my kids tried to be a little "too human" and not hog the resources. This led to most of my carnivores not surviving. Again, this led to an interesting discussion about how this simulation is similar to and different from real life, and how in nature it is sometimes necessary for animals to be "selfish" to survive. One kid noted, "It's lucky we have farms, or people might have to be that way too." What a great connection!

In the end I think this simulation was one of the best science activities we did this year, and the conversations that it brought about were amazing. If you're interested in trying it out with your kids, find my packet of materials in my store for the very reasonable price of just three bucks!  :)

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