My Work: External Advisor With Schools

One of my current projects is working with various private schools in Cyprus (not public because I can’t teach biology in Greek), giving students various extracurricular opportunities that give them more insight into nature and how to think like a biologist, things that for various reasons aren’t/can’t be done within a regular school year and curriculum. Since I don’t have the qualifications to be a proper school teacher (EU law states that one has to have a proper education degree), these are all one-off activities or long-term projects in which I act as an advisor or guest lecturer.

The activities I propose all come from my own areas – evolution, zoology, palaeontology, geology, and basic ecology. Luckily, these are fields that are left woefully untouched by most European curricula. Based on a short (and probably inaccurate) survey I did, worldwide ones are sorely lacking as well, except the Japanese curriculum which is heavily steeped in natural history. The standard EU curriculum is actually pretty boring, with most of the material concerning cell biology, biochemistry, and genetics, with the actual cool parts of biology nowhere to be seen. Cool may be relative, but I know from my own experience as a museum guide that the best way to inspire kids and teens to become biologists isn’t to bore them with biochemical cycles like photosynthesis and the Calvin Cycle, but by showing them weird stuff and using those as a jumping point into biology proper. I became a biologist not because I learned the word phosphorylation, but because I saw a picture of a trilobite in my textbook and thought it was freakin’ awesome.

Note that these are strictly extracurricular. They can be tied in many ways to the set curriculum, but they can’t replace it. For example, the zoology fieldtrips can be done as an addendum to the ecology or evolution sections of the course. I may later do a post on what ideal elementary and high school biology curricula should look like (because current ones certainly don’t fit my vision!).

Note that these activities aren’t necessarily only for schools – if you’re a parent, you can do these with your kids (note: this is not an endorsement for home schooling!). These are general things I’m suggesting, with infinite customisations possible to suit individual classrooms, age ranges, and situations. Teachers, I strongly encourage cooperating with a local environmental institution or university – you’d be surprised by how much cooperation is possible if both sides just bother to get in touch with each other. The way I’m getting these done is by going to the reception desks of schools and asking for meetings with biology teachers – at least in Cyprus, going through a personal approach is the best way; don’t try to meddle with school affairs, and be sure to be fully accommodating to the teachers. After all, you’re providing a service with the teachers as customers, and unlike other service industries, in this case the customer knows what’s best.

Activities for Kids (= elementary school age)

Kids need visual and experiential stimulation, if only because the average attention span of a child isn’t really conducive to lecturing and textbook reading. You need to get them excited about a subject by telling them random cool trivia about it, and then you let them experience it hands-on. This is the thinking behind these activities. Note that for fieldtrips, it’s not a good idea to take them for more than a couple of hours – they tire easily.

  • Fossil fieldtrip (2 hours): Take the kids on a short fieldtrip to a single fossil locality, as near as possible (to let them feel that fossils really are accessible). The best would be a place where fossils can be picked right off the ground or can be seen clearly in the outcrop, to avoid them having to use hammers. Let them see everything, but keep collecting limited so they learn the value of geoconservation. Make sure you prepare an illustrated checklist of the common fossils so they have an incentive to look for everything. Combine this with a visual explanation of the locality’s palaeoenvironment – make everything into a story.
  • Zoology fieldtrip (2 hours): Take the kids on a short fieldtrip to a nature trail/nature spot nearby. Have them dig around under stones to try and collect any invertebrates. Have them check tree trunks and flowers for insects. It’s best if there is a stream or lake or other water body nearby for the opportunity to get aquatic organisms too. Make sure that anything they do collect gets released in the same spot. The kids will be happy just being out in nature, but this can also be a powerful long-term project – take them to the same spot once a month for them to get a feel for how the environment changes with the seasons. Combine all of this with classroom looks at select organisms, and they’ll be hooked.
  • Urban ecology (2 hours): This is exactly the same as the zoology fieldtrip, except the nature spot is within the city. This can be a park or a cemetary, or a tree-lined pathway or even street. This will teach them that biodiversity isn’t something that one has to travel far to see, and that the city itself isn’t some desolate place, but an ecosystem also teeming with life. It’s a powerful realisation for kids, and will make them more considerate of the environment.
  • Stereoscope sessions (1 hour); only if equipment is available (can be substituted with large magnifying lenses): Magnified things are infinitely cooler than when they’re regular-sized, and this is doubly true (yes, double of infinity!) for organisms. Just get some insects (perhaps from one of the field trips), earthworms, and whatever other small organisms are available in your vincinity, and have the kids look at them under a stereoscope or large magnifying lens. They’ll be hooked, and it wills erve as a good precursor to basic anatomy lessons.
  • Terrarium (long-term project): Simply build a terrarium and have them raise an animal in there. Ant farms are the classics, scorpions are also pretty cool to keep, as are beetles and caterpillars. Other animals may require more maintance (e.g. praying mantises), so I advise against them. Contact me if you want rearing information, or just do some googling. They can observe their behaviour first-hand and even do basic experiments.
  • Aquarium (long-term project): As with terrarium, but using brine shrimp or vernal pond sediment.
  • Anatomy (1 hour): Prepare sets of body parts out of card, from all over the animal kingdom (tentacles, proboscises, arms, legs, antennae, fingers, etc.). Have them combine them to form real animals (provided with simple diagrams/pictures to guide them). They’ll learn the true diversity of animal life, beyond the charismatic animals they see all the time on TV. Feel free to contact me for assistance with this.

Activities for Teens (= secondary school age)

The typical teenager will just be glad to do something other than the usual school stuff, so use that to your advantage by sneaking in as much raw information as you can without making your activities boring. Teenagers are my second favourite age group to teach (first is undergrads), and that’s because when you get them inspired, they work harder than anyone else. So if you’re dealing with a classroom full of them, you may face an ocean of apathy, but you may also uncover some gems and talent, so it’s worth it. They’re also fun because you can be a bit risqué with them. I once took a class of teens on a trip to a forest, and euthanised and dissected a squirrel to show them parasites (the squirrel was almost dead anyway, there were no ethical quandaries). They loved it, because it was cool and gory, and yet they still learned a lot of information about parasitology. You should use such spontaneous opportunities when teaching teenagers – think of it like doing improv comedy.

The activities here follow pretty much on from the ones for kids, so read above for the full descriptions. Here I will only write the modifications to make the activities more advanced.

  • Fossil fieldtrips (3 hours): Instead of taking them to a single, spectacular fossil locality, take them to a less spectacular one where they may have to look harder for fossils. Maybe even have them simulate a fossil dig. Alternatively, take them to multiple close fossil localities so they can see the basics of stratigraphical correlation, in which case they can learn how to draw and describe profiles too.
  • Geology fieldtrips (3 hours): This is mostly aimed specifically at Cyprus due to its iconic geology, but other countries must have places to visit some great geology too (best to ask at your local university’s geological or geographical department). The advantage in Cyprus is that the localities here can very easily be used to teach basic geological principles; these may be lacking in other countries. In such cases, a classroom introduction would be a good idea, and then taking them to the field so they can see the rocks and geology first-hand.
  • Zoology fieldtrips (3 hours): As in the Kids section, except with a more rigorous identification lesson, and an introduction to field ecological methods – maybe do a transect walk, have them take notes on where and how they collected their insects, and other such practicalities, so they get to know how a proper work method is like.
  • Urban ecology fieldtrips (3 hours): Same rigorousness from above.
  • Stereoscope sessions (one hour); only if equipment is available at school: As with the Kids section, but combined with a proper anatomy lesson. Contact me if you want help with this.
  • Dissections (2 hours): Dissections of already-dead specimens – you want to take this chance to teach them about basic bioethics as well as anatomy. Get vertebrate parts from the butcher’s, fish and cephalopods from a fishery, and invertebrates captured as part of a fieldtrip or a sampling station (see later). If you want help with how to carry out the dissections, or explanatory diagrams, contact me.
  • Standardised sampling (long-term project): Set up an insect trap somewhere on school grounds, a nearby field, or other convenient area that will not be vandalised. Have the class maintain the trap. This was originally conceived as a free data collecting mechanism for my research, but it can be easily be used for educational purposes. Just the data-logging is enough to teach them statistics, especially when combined with weather data. Work with a local entomologist or zoologist, and you will have a reliable source of Ids, and you can use your trapped specimens for your dissections, stereoscope sessions, or anatomy lessons. Or, you can start a classroom insect collection, and give each student a research project to find out about the insect and do a presentation about it. The possibilities are endless – but as I said, this is my attempt at setting up a citizen science network, and I haven’t really thought of the educational potential.
  • Terrarium, Aquarium (long-term projects): As with the Kids section, except have the kids run experiments. If you cooperate with a zoologist/ecologist, you can even do novel work, as with the Blackawton Bees project that got published in Biology Letters. You can have these experiments replace the usual dead-boring chromatography experiments or whatever is now done in high school biology. Remember: working with living organisms is always cooler than working with molecules, unless your students want to become chemists (which means they’re a lost cause anyway).
  • Scientist interview (30 mins): This is aimed more at those in the last 2 years of school. Invite a scientist (from the local university, or internationally by Skype), have them introduce themselves and their research, and have the students quizz them on their study and career path, why they went into science, and other such questions that will both inspire the students and give them a realistic perspective. For best effect, do this multiple times, with scientists of different genders and rank (a professor, a grad, an assistant prof.), and even scientists from outside academia.
  • Animal Biodiversity (2 hours): This is a presentation on animal biodiversity and phylogeny (can be done for plants and microcritters, but that’s not something I can do), preferably with a couple of specimens to check out in addition to the powerpoint/video. If you don’t have access to a zoologist, go here and prepare a lecture yourself. The basic point of this is to let them know that the charismatic animals they see on TV are a tiny percentage of even phylogenetic diversity (too often, I encounter kids and students who think that vertebrates form the bulk of biodiversity, which is too flawed to even compute in my head). Show them meiofauna, parasitic organisms, and the enormous diversity of “worms”. That is quite a lot of work if you’re not familiar with the stuff though (contact me for help if you need it!), so an alternative would be a presentation on the local biodiversity – but please try to avoid the charismatics. Show them interesting animals, not the ones they’ve already seen hundreds of times (take them to a zoo if they’re really itching to see charismatic fauna).

Activities I wish I could offer:

  • Biology in science fiction, fantasy, and mythology: No school would accept this, but I think this is a great way to get kids and teenagers interested in biology. From the biology of great mythical and fantastical creatures (dragons, orcs, griffins, etc.) to the heredity of midichlorians to the population biology of humans in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, there’s a lot of offball questions that can stimulate students to think biologically. With the examples pulled from fiction, it adds a refreshing and fun touch, they’ll definitely enjoy the course because they get to watch awesome movies and, if I’m running the course, they’ll get an additional education in cinematography, filmmaking, and scriptwriting (personal factoid: my decision to study biology at university was last-minute; I was on track to getting signed up in film school). I think these three reasons are why no school would ever accept such a proposal.
  • Biodiversity showcase: This is only hard to do because getting enough samples would be very hard without a sponsoring natural history museum; it’s also logistically difficult. This is basically an addendum to the animal biodiversity presentation, with a thorough showcase of specimens. Each phylum gets one or two cabinets, and the students go around and draw the organisms. Pick one and do a small research project and presentation on it.
  • Rock and mineral ID: Same as above (incl. problems), except with rock and mineral types.
  • Geological exercises: Show them how geological features form in the lab. Very easy to do for sedimentological features, all you need is a deep tray with sand, water, and a paddle. Igneous and volcanic ones can also be simulated.
  • Roleplaying exercises: This is something that you can do to encourage them to think practically in environmental terms. Take them to an ecosystem, give them a tour of it (zoology fieldtrip!), then pretend you’re a developer who wants to build a hotel on that ecosystem. Have them come up with arguments to dissuade you. There is a small risk of turning them into eco-terrorists, but most will simply come away with all the good arguments for conservation.

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