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.

The Plane in the Sky: School from an Airplane

1 class period

Using aerial photographs Land Classification to determine what covers the schoolyard Land cover percentage (Building on skills from “Candyland Elementary School Land Use” lesson)


  1. Set the aerial photos around the classroom so that each group will be able to work on a flat surface. (5 Minutes)
  2. Break the students into groups and allow them to look at aerial photos asking as many questions as they can. Allow the students to determine what they see and list as many things as possible. (10 Minutes)
    The intent of this part of the lesson is to allow the students to interpret what they see. An optional portion of this lesson would be to provide a list of possible things that the students see. Two versions of the student list are provided with this lesson. An example list is below:
    Ball Field
    Parking Lot
  3. Lead a discussion about what the students saw on the photo. Ask them if they saw anything that might be important to them. Did they notice what season it was? What time of day was the photo taken? What might a scientist see? How might a scientist use the information on the photo?
  4. Explain to the students that they are going to use this aerial photo to create a map of school the land cover types just as they did in the Candyland Elementary exercise. Show them an outline of the boundary of the school and ask them to copy that from you so all the maps the students create are consistent in shape. They will focus on land cover and begin to classify what they think each item on the schoolyard is.
  5. After some time allowing the students to classify some of the items on their map give them a transparency to overlay on the schoolyard area. They will begin by tracing the outline of the schoolyard on the transparency. Next, instruct the students to outline all features on the map that appear to be alike in one color. For example, buildings can all be outlined and colored in one color, parking lots and driveways in another, fields in another, and so on. Allow them to classify the schoolyard in up to eight categories (You will have eight colors of overhead marker). At the end of this activity their map will be a colorful drawing of the school site.
    The progression of the activities will be…
    -Observe the map, what do you see?
    -Outline the school site.
    -Outline items that appear to be alike on the aerial photo (could be buildings, trees, fields, etc) in one color and color them in. Let them determine the categories.
    Or, make this a step-by-step plan. For example, have the students outline and color the roads first, then the buildings, the playground, the fields, etc., until all areas are colored in.

    Notes for 1st-2nd graders: Use only steps one through three on the lesson plan. Be sure to use the activity sheets that list what the students might see. If they do steps four and five it will be more important to give them step-by-step directions while making the cover map.
  6. After all groups have finished the steps above, have them present their maps to the rest of the class. Ask them to explain the categories that they chose and why they chose them. Ask them how they can know that their map is accurate. What could they do to investigate its accuracy? Encourage them to explain with as much detail why their map looks the way it does. There is really no wrong version of the map at this point. Variation is expected.
  7. Let the students know that they will use their information to develop a classification system for the entire class and that they will collaboratively create a class map. Part of the large map creation will involve the classification system discussion, going out on the schoolyard to make sure that the aerial photo is accurate (field checking). Developing a classification system is an important step in coming up with a map that accurately shows the cover of the schoolyard. The final part of this series of activities will be to determine how much of the schoolyard is covered by each land use type just as they did in “Candyland Elementary.”

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