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Teaching Classification and Taxonomy = FUN!!

What is this organism?  

What characteristics does it have?  To what other organisms is it related?  Is it a vertebrate or an invertebrate?  What does it eat?  What role does it play in the ecosystem?

All biology teachers have particular topics that they really don't like to teach, and topics that we LOVE LOVE to teach.  Teaching classification is a topic that I LOVE!

Classification and taxonomy involves problem solving and critical thinking.  Basically a taxonomist is a "living organism detective".

I have two really fun activities that my students always enjoy.  The first is called "Let's Learn to Use and Build a Dichotomous Key".    This product teaches students all about dichotomous classification keys.  Students will learn why classification is necessary, the definition of a dichotomous key, and how to use a dichotomous key.  Students will analyze the included pictures of 7 different cone-bearing plants, and use a dichotomous key to classify them.   

Finally students will learn to construct a classification key of their own.  Students are given pictures of 12 different primates and asked to make their own classification key.  The beauty of this part of the activity is that there is no right or wrong way to construct the classification key.  Students study the 12 pictures and decide which characteristics to include in their key.  I am always amazed at the innovative and creative classification keys that my students come up with.   There are also 10 follow up questions for students to answer.

The second activity that I love to do with my students is called "Let's Build A Cladogram".  Cladistics is one of the newest trends in the modern classification of organisms.  It shows the relationship between different organisms based on the presence or absence of characteristics called derived characters.  In this activity, students will look at pictures  of 7 different animals to determine if they possess certain derived characters.  This data will then be used to build a cladogram.

There are just so many fun things to do when teaching classification.  I always have to make myself wrap up the unit and move on to a new topic!  Have fun teaching!

A Dichotomous Classification Key with a Holiday Twist!

Combine how to teach (or review) a dichotomous classification key with a wonderful community service project!

I absolutely love the holiday season for so many reasons, but one of my favorite reasons is that I look forward to this activity with my biology students so much!  I came up with this idea several years ago while racking my brain for an activity that could be done with my high school biology students just before the Christmas break.  I wanted to involve my students in a community service activity and also wanted it to be related to science in some way.

Starting this week, in the few days before we dismiss for Thanksgiving holidays, I will place a collection box in my classroom.  I tell my students that we are going to collect money for a project that will benefit those less fortunate than we are.  I encourage them to give what they can.  I let them know that we will be collecting money for several weeks.  Since most high school students usually have a bit of change in their pockets, I encourage them to place some coins in the box whenever they feel they can spare it.

After a few weeks, I use the money to buy various candies (Hershey bars, Reese's peanut butter cups, peppermint patties) and travel size toiletries (shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, etc.) Then one day just before we dismiss for the Christmas holidays, I have my students complete my activity called, "The Dichotomous Key to Holiday Giving and Community Service." (FREE download.)

The students are given the different candies and toiletries.  They must use my dichotomous classification key to determine the "scientific" name of each item.  As the candies are classified they are placed into small red stockings.  As the toiletries are classified, they are placed in quart sized ziplock bags.  After school we deliver the stockings of candy and the bags of toiletries to our local food bank.  We live in a small town so many of the students are able and willing to accompany me to the food bank.  As the food bank distributes food for the holidays, they will include our candy and toiletries in the boxes of food they distribute.  The fine folks who work at the food bank are always so excited to get our small contributions, and many of my students will stay at the food bank for the afternoon and volunteer.

I have a particular fondness for our small, local food bank, but you might also consider doing this activity and donating your items to a nursing home or another worthwhile organization such as the Salvation Army.  Your students might not learn a whole lot of science in this activity, but they will experience the joy of giving and the value of serving the community.

You can download this activity for free:  A Dichotomous Key to Holiday Giving and Community Services.    I hope you enjoy this activity as much as I do!

Have fun teaching!

Can Your Students Write a Clear and Concise Lab Procedure?

The Scientific Method:  Writing a Lab Procedure

This FREEBIE allows your students to practice writing a set of clear and concise laboratory instructions.

A key component of the scientific method is the recording and publishing of results. In his publication, a scientist must give the procedural steps used to perform his experiment.  Other scientists will repeat his work to verify the results.

In this simple activity, the student will build a unique and unusual structure.  The student will then write instructions for how to build the structure.  Students will swap sets of instructions and attempt to build the structures of other students using the instructions written by the other student.

Enjoy this new free writing activity!

Tardigrades - The Amazing Water Bear!

The Water Bear:  
Toughest Animal Alive!!

The tardigrades, or water bears, have to be one of the most amazing creatures on this Earth.  I thought about them just this week in my biology class when we were discussing two evolutionary problems that had to be solved before plants and animals could colonize the land masses (dehydration and reproduction).  While thinking about dehydration, I mentioned the water bears to my classes.  I try to throw out fun factoids to my students whenever possible.  My students love hearing snippets of amazing "science stuff" and I love how it stimulates their scientific curiosity.  The mention of water bears caused a ripple of questions by my students, so I did a bit more research in order to satisfy their curiosity.

The Amazing Facts About Water Bears!
(Drum roll, please!)

  • Tardigrades are commonly called "water bears" or "moss piglets".  They look like chubby little microscopic bears!
  • They are animals with 8 legs. Each leg ends with 4 to 8 claws.
  • They are very small.  They range in size from a quarter of a millimeter to a half a millimeter.
  • Tardigrades are the toughest animal around. They can survive in extreme environments that would kill almost any other animal.
  • Tardigrades are famous for their ability to perform "cryptobiosis". They can survive for years without water.  Normally their body is 85% water.  Their body composition can drop from 85% water down to 3% water and still survive.
  • They can spend years in this dehydrated state.
  • While in a dehydrated state, the metabolic rate drops to .01% of normal.
  • They can survive extreme temperatures.  They have been known to survive in temperatures as low as -273 degrees Celsius and as high as 151 degrees Celsius.
  • They can survive 1000 times more radiation than any other animal.
  • Tardigrades are the first known animals that can survive the vacuum of space!  Tardigrades have returned alive when exposed to the vacuum of space for a few days in low Earth orbit.
  • They can remain in the state of suspended animation for years. When placed in water, they become active again.
  • Tardigrades can survive in the extremely low pressure of a vacuum as well as high pressure of 1200 atmospheres.
  • Tardigrades have been discovered in hot springs, on top of the Himalayas, and under layers of solid ice.  
  • They may be found living on land or in fresh or salt water.
  • They belong to the phylum Tardigrada and the superphylum Ecdysozoa.
  • Their body is covered with a cuticle composed of chitin.  They molt periodically.
Here is a fun idea that I am going to try.  (I just read about this on the internet, and I am definitely going to give this a try!!)  Collect a few samples of moss.  You might ask your students to bring in samples that they find around their homes.  Soak the moss in a Petri dish for a few hours. Remove the moss and place the Petri dish under a dissecting microscope. You should find water bears!

Here is a pretty amazing video that I found on youtube.  This will definitely get the attention of your biology students!

Have fun teaching!!