Walking into an elementary school in early June, my colleague and I discovered a large Eastern Hercules Beetle (Dynastes tityus) crawling across the sidewalk. We immediately picked it up, put it in a jar and began planning how we would integrate this impressive specimen into our lesson for the day. A little bit of research revealed that we had discovered a female Hercules beetle, pictured here and that animals in this arthropod family are pound for pound, the strongest animals in the world. Some can lift as much as 850 times their own weight! There is significant sexual dimorphism in Hercules beetlesit is easy to distinguish between males and females. Adult males have an upper horn that protrudes forward from the thorax and a lower horn that protrudes forward from the head, while females lack horns altogether.
Of course the students were fascinated by this nearly six centimeter long beetle and spent quite a bit of time observing it and asking multitudes of questions including What does it eat?, How big will it get?, Where does it live?, Why was it on our sidewalk?, etc. I have no doubt that students walked away that day inspired to learn more about the beetle on their own. This, of course, is the hallmark of a teachable moment; a timely, wonder-inspiring topic that students can immediately relate to.
The natural world affords us plenty of these teachable moments; we just have to take our students outdoors to experience them. Im currently reading a book titled The Nature Principal by Richard Louv. In the book, Louv argues that while technology can be a barrier to fully experiencing nature, the answer is not to remove it altogether. We must learn to step away from technology for moments in time, unplug if you will, to reconnect with nature. Louv states that while understandably many view technology as the antithesis of nature, the attitude of young citizen naturalists, or techno-naturalists as he calls them, toward technology could be an advantage. Geocaching, wildlife photography, stargazing with your iPhone are all legitimate ways to engage nature. Finding a way to help our children experience nature during the school day is critical to helping them focus, be creative and achieve mental harmony.
How can I get my class outside you ask? You dont need an elaborate lesson plan. Grab your students and their science notebooks and try setting up a quadrat (a small plot of land set aside for plant and animal studies) for observation in the school yard. You can have the students do a campus leaf collection, start a school garden, try bird watching and identification, or if you have access to a stream or pond on campus or in a nearby park, do water quality testing and stream study. Try bringing technology outdoors with your students. Grab a handheld digital microscope and explore the schoolyard. We like the Zoomy. Or, use digital cameras to create virtual wildflower collections.
Is there an app for that? There are so many great education apps that will help you utilize the outdoors as a classroom. Here are some of my favorites for combining technology and nature. Audubon Guides is an interactive guide to North American birds, mammals, trees and wildflowers. Also, be sure to check out the wide variety of great FREE education apps like Leafsnap, Project Noah, National Parks and Google Earth, to name a few.
E.O. Wilson calls insects the little things that run the world. Get your students outdoors so they too can discover and appreciate all the wonderful little things that nature has to offer.