Schoolyard Ecology

Thinking about the flow of matter and energy with students is one of the key ways of exploring ecosystems. In these lessons, students construct their own understanding of ecosystems through investigations in their schoolyard, developing ideas about ecological processes and functions.

Quadrats and Questions

1 class period
Outside in the schoolyard

Students will be able to observe the environment around them and formulate questions based on their own observations.  




Ask student to raise their hand if they have ever done an experiment before.  Have those that have share with the class what they did and how they came up with the idea for their experiment.  Assess student’s knowledge of the scientific process by asking them what they know about conducting an experiment.  Students will most likely respond with the scientific method and the steps they have learned.  Remind students that the most important step to any scientific study is developing a good question. 


  1. Bring students outside and place them in a spot in the schoolyard with a hula hoop.  This activity works best when students work individually or in pairs.
  2. Have students sit quietly for 5 minutes without talking and tell them to observe the quadrat in front of them.  They might want to sketch what they are seeing as a way of getting started.
  3. Now have students write down all the questions they can possibly think of for 15 minutes.  Tell students:  Do not filter your questions;  Do not reject any questions whether you know the answer or do not have a clue how you would answer the question;  No question is stupid or trivial;  Try to keep your questions focused on what you are observing in the quadrat in front of you, but you don’t have to limit yourself to this 
  4. As students are writing down their questions, circulate among them and give help when needed. Sometimes students get ”stuck” and say they can’t think of any questions.  Giving some examples of questions, helps them get started.
  5. Move to a quiet spot in the schoolyard or back inside the classroom.  Ask students to share their questions.  What kinds of questions did your students ask? One way you might want to classifiy your questions  is a) informational ("what is it?"), b) functional ("how does it work?"), and c) evolutionary ("why is it that way?").  Keep a running list on the board or chart paper of the some of the questions students come up with grouping them into the classification categories you have chosen.
  6. As students are sharing their questions have the class discuss whether or not they think they could answer that question given the resources available to them.  Many questions that students ask are easily answered by doing research on the topic.  Highlight questions that students come up with that are unique and would require an experiment or study that they could implement to find the answer. 



When discussing with students what makes a good scientific question it is helpful to have a set criteria to guide them.   There are four basic criteria that help students come up with a good question. These are:

  1. Answerable – Questions that begin with “how”, “which”, “how many” and “where” tend to be easier to answer than questions that start with “why”.  Often why questions can become more attainable simply by dropping the “why”.
  2. Comparative – Comparisons should be based on prior knowledge, observed patterns and common sense.  Comparative questions lead to reflection, while non-comparative questions are often dead ends.
  3. Tantalizing and Fun – The question should be interesting but not overwhelming.  Make sure you are interested in the answer!
  4. Simple – The materials needed to answer the question should be accessible to the teacher and students.  Reduce the use of scientific jargon as much as possible.
     Discuss with students what they feel makes a good scientific question.  Help them come up with their own criteria for asking a good question using the criteria above as guidance.


Have students pick one question from among their list, or develop a new one, that they feel they could answer by implementing their own scientific study.  Make sure they are using the criteria they decided on. 

With the whole group discuss: How do your questions reflect your background and prior knowledge? What makes questions interesting? How do the questions relate to the central theme or topic identified (in this case their quadrats) at the beginning of the exercise?


  1. Have students come up with a hypothesis for their question.  A hypothesis is, simply stated, a testable proposition or statement. One of the core parts of scientific inquiry is the rigorous comparison of your proposition with some aspect of reality (e.g., results of observations, experiments, etc.)   For any question, there necessarily are at least two hypotheses, For example for the question, “Does more moss grow on the north or the south side of trees?"  Hypothesis 1 would be:  “More moss grows on north sides of trees than on other sides,” and hypothesis 2 would be “Moss growth does not differ on different sides of trees”. 
  2. As a class, follow through with your question. Design, implement, and evaluate the results to one question that the students came up with.


Team students up in small groups and have them design a study that will answer one of their questions. Students should include the materials they will need and methods they will use to carry out the experiment or study.   If the question they chose has met all the criteria then they should be able to do this!  Encourage students to get creative.   If students are struggling to think of a way to design a study, have them go back and rethink the question they are asking.  Have students present the study to the class.

Contributors:  Peter Feinsinger and other ecologists in OTS (the Organization of Tropical Studies), Steward T.A. Picket


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