I’m not sure if I’ve ever met a high school biology teacher who DOESN’T enjoy teaching ecology (if that’s you – let me know! I love meeting unicorns 🤪) There are so many fun, hands-on ways to engage students in this content, and because of this, students tend to really love it, too!
But over the years, I’ve reflected on my practice and have learned some things that have really improved how I teach ecology in my Biology 1 course. So here are my five best tips for teaching ecology!
1. Teach ecology at the end of the year, rather than the beginning.
I know this may sound weird, but hear me out. A lot of teachers love using ecology at the beginning of the year. It’s a nice way to ease into the school year, students are engaged in your class from your very first unit, and it sets the foundation for the rest of the year. I get it! But I have chosen a different scope and sequence that I’ve found much more effective – and that’s starting with the micro topics (i.e. macromolecules, cells, and biochemical processes) and ending with the macro topics (like evolution and ecology).
- I like to start the year when my students and I have the MOST energy with the harder content. It’s easier to tackle the nitty-gritty micro stuff when you’ve got that magical “Back To School” enthusiasm fueling you.
- I now get to save one of our most enjoyable and engaging units for the end of the year when I am the most tired and my students are the most disengaged. This keeps them with me until the very last day!
- This unit is JAM PACKED with fun hands-on labs and activities and is such a fun exclamation point (!) to place at the end of the school year.
- So much of the ecology content lends itself to being outdoors – and our weather here is better in April/May than it is in September/October.
- Teaching ecology at the end of the year allows the content to line up with Earth Day, which is perfect for incorporating one of my favorite resources ever on human impact that is a part of my ecology unit.
- Ecology is arguably our easiest content of the year. It’s nice to go through it when my students have major senioritis (even if they are only freshmen) and spring fever. Plus, it can be a huge boost for their grades to end the year.
- If you have a state standardized exam at the end of the year, this is a REALLY easy unit to pare down if you run short on time. I never want this to be the case because it is so fun, BUT I’d much rather cut ecology down to 1 week and hit the bullet points before my students take their EOC exam vs. having to cut evolution or another more complicated unit down to just a few days of instruction.
- Side note: This happened to me when I was teaching AP Bio and we missed several weeks of school due to severe flooding and damage from a hurricane. This hurricane had a major impact on us locally but obviously didn’t change the date of the AP exam from the first week of May. Luckily I had saved ecology for last and was able to give students a very quick review the week before the exam and they all still did well! I am so glad I wasn’t forced to rush through more complex topics right before the exam!
- It truly ties everything together that we learn all year long. I especially love all of the ways that evolution can be woven into ecology. If you teach ecology first, you miss out on that opportunity (I know you can circle back to ecology later when you teach evolution, but still! I LOVE doing it in this order with ecology right after evolution so I can refer back to it DAILY!).
I can go on and on, but I really just have to say, this is probably one of the best shifts I ever made in my entire scope and sequence, in terms of how rearranging the content benefitted my students. If interested, you can read more about my scope and sequence, and my rationale behind it, here.
2. Engage students with phenomena.
Whether you teach at an NGSS school or not, using phenomena can be an amazing way to engage your students in the content and help them see big picture connections for what they are learning. There are so many amazing phenomena that lend themselves to teaching ecology.
Here is a brief list of a few of my favorite anchoring phenomena:
- Climate change
- Ocean acidification
- Diversity of life yet the interconnectedness of life – what I like to call, the “it’s a small world” phenomenon
- Clean/green living –> is it possible and/or realistic?
For an investigative phenomenon, I absolutely LOVE to do ecosystem in a bottle. To me, it is an absolute MUST DO for everyone teaching ecology and can run the entire length of your ecology unit. I love it so much that it is my 3rd tip!
3. Do Ecosystem in a Bottle.
A simple Google search of “Ecosystem in a Bottle” will pull up a ton of different results. This idea is about as unique as doing a cell organelle model project, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.
Ecosystem in a bottle is a long-term investigation that allows your students to hypothesize and create a living model for the best way to connect an aquatic ecosystem with a terrestrial one so that all of the organisms can survive. It’s a phenomenal way for students to put all that they have learned about ecology into practice, and is by far the most memorable learning experience my students consistently have in my class every year. Even my AP seniors will be excited to see what my freshmen bio students come up with every year!
Yes, it is messy. Yes, it requires a lot of materials. If you’ve been around here long, you know I try to avoid both of those things at all costs. But I can promise you this – it is WORTH IT every year to make exceptions to my own little boundaries for this lab investigation. If you are scared to try it out and want detailed guidance, set up tips, sample pictures, and student handouts to walk you through it, I’ve got your back.
4. Don’t teach food webs during ecology.
This is about as controversial as my first tip (which is why I separated them – didn’t want to hit you with the one-two punches back to back) but again, hear me out. I don’t teach food webs and trophic pyramids in ecology.
Again, this is a concept that tends to be pretty simple for students to grasp, and they most likely remember a good bit of it from taking life science in middle school. So instead, I teach it alongside photosynthesis and cellular respiration. I LOVE DOING IT THIS WAY! It takes complex biochemical reactions and helps students to see the BIG picture. They can learn how energy is being transferred (or flowing) on a chemical level AND on an organismal level. You can read more about my philosophy behind this here.
Instead, I focus this unit on ecological organization, the biogeochemical cycles, population ecology, human impact on the environment, ecological succession, and interrelationships of organisms. There is still a TON of content to cover, and moving food webs to a different unit doesn’t diminish this one in the slightest!
5. Get students outside.
Like I mentioned in my first point, I love saving this unit for the end of the year so that we can take advantage of spring weather and GET OUTSIDE as much as possible! Especially if you have been teaching in a virtual setting all year – this gives you the perfect opportunity to send your students away from their screens and on an ecological scavenger hunt!
Have them make observations or take pictures to create a digital scrapbook of pieces of evidence of different phases of the biogeochemical cycles, interrelationships of organisms, or human environmental impact. How fun would it be for you AND your students to enjoy warmer weather and get some vitamin D, all while learning relevant content, to end the year?
Not only that, but I do a LOT of creative activities in my ecology unit that lend themselves to students going outside, maybe coloring a little, and just having fun! If you want to revamp your entire Ecology unit and see exactly how I love teaching ecology, you can snag my entire unit with EVERY day planned for you for 2 months (yes, I spend about 2 months on this unit if I can because I love it so much!!)
I would LOVE to hear if you make any changes to how you teach ecology based on these tips – and how it goes!! Feel free, as always, to reach out to me on my contact page or by DM-ing me on Instagram. I LOVE hearing from you!