Finishing Strong #130: Middle School Curriculum & Traditions

Welcome to Finishing Strong ~ a weekly link-up dedicated to families homeschooling middle & high school kids. Each Wednesday, moms just like you share their best tips, encouragement, advice, and more for teaching older kids at home.

Finishing-Strong-500x500I am delighted that families homeschooling middle and high school age students are coming together and finding inspiration in one another. That has been the goal of Finishing Strong since its inception. Thank you!!

Finishing Strong is hosted by me here at EvaVarga along with my friends – Heather from Blog She Wrote, Megan from Education Possible, and Heidi from Starts at Eight.

I know you will find the posts that have been shared with us inspiring! Grab a cup of tea, kick back, and take some time to check out the wonderful posts shared below. What are your favorites

riparian area studyEcology Studies for Middle School

As the kids have grown and become more independent in their studies, the delivery of lessons has also changed. I no longer coordinate a STEM Club for my kiddos but I do periodically teach lessons to my son’s boy scout troop as part of their rank requirements or for a merit badge.

In the post, The Many Parts of a Streambank, I share an activity I recently taught in which we learned about the ecology of a stream bank. One of their favorite parts of this lesson was calculated the stream flow rate.

In the month of September, each Sunday I will share a post relaying the activities I used to teach the Environmental Science and Soil & Water Conservation merit badges. Follow along to put together a  Ecology unit for your middle school students.


Finishing Strong

We hope you’ll take some time to check out the amazing posts that have been shared with us. We are so thankful to all of our readers and contributors who help make Finishing Strong a key resource for everyone homeschooling through the middle & high school years.

The top posts shared last week

Below are a couple of the posts I most enjoyed from last week. Additionally, we celebrate our first tie – two posts each received the most clicks. How cool is that?!8th Grade CurriculumOur 8th Grade Homeschool Curriculum Choices

from Megan at Education Possible ~ I love the literature Megan and her daughter Marianna have selected for history. I hadn’t previously considered a literature based study but now I am so intrigued. I want to put something together of ourselves.

7th Grade CurriculumOur 7th Grade Homeschool Curriculum

from Michelle at Freely Learned ~ She and her son are using Writing & Rhetoric books 7 and 8 – just like my son. I look forward to following along.

5 Days of STEM Activities – Solar Cars

from Pat of Pat and Candy ~ This first post from a series of 5 is a review of a kit from Pitsco Education. She walks you through their experience … these little cars look like a lot of fun! I look forward to reading the other STEM posts in her series.

Back to School Traditions for Middle School Homeschoolers

from Latonya at Joy in the Ordinary ~ Latonya shares several ideas for new back-to-school traditions. I particularly liked the time allocation chart and will most certainly be adding this into our lessons – perhaps on a quarterly basis to just check in. As she says, we [both students and adults] “aren’t always cognizant of the ways that they use their time…”

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As always, thank you for helping us to make Finishing Strong a key resource for families who are homeschooling through the middle & high school years.

What are you going to share with us this week?

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Back to School August Super Sale

August Super Sale

It is officially back to school season and store shelves are overflowing with 3-ring binders, composition notebooks, and pencils. To celebrate, your Back to School savings start now!

I am excited to announce that through the month of August, I am offering all 3 of my trimester units (10-weeks each) bundled for just $27!

Life Logic is comprised of three disciplines (Botany, Zoology, and Ecology). The units can stand alone or can be combined for a complete academic year curriculum. The curriculum was field tested in the public school classroom and modified for the homeschool or co-op setting.

Life Science Bundle

Life Logic Curriculum

Botany

Like each of the units in the series, Botany – Plenty O’Plants is a hands-on life science curriculum that provides ample opportunity for kids to explore plant science in-depth.  This 10-week unit is full of inquiry-based activities and lesson plans fully outlined for you.

Zoology

Amazing Animals begins with an overview of the scientific classification system and then progresses through each of the major phyla through hands-on, engaging activities that are sure to captivate your students.

Ecology

The 10-week Ecology Explorations curriculum eBook provides several opportunities to guide your students on an exploration of your local ecosystems.  What better way to learn about ecology than to get out there, collect data, and experience the physical factors that influence the animal and plant communities first hand.

August Super Sale

Purchased separately, each 10-week curriculum is priced at $19.90. Through the month of August, use the special link below to purchase the bundle for just $27.

buynowgreen

In the field for special instructions, enter the coupon code iWant3.

I will then send you a separate email with download links for each of the life science units – Botany – Plenty O’Plants, Amazing Animals, and Ecology Explorations.

 

Exploring Ecology: The Many Parts of a Streambank

The forested land along rivers and streams is known as the “riparian zone”. Riparian comes from the Latin word ripa, which means bank. Riparian zones are areas of transition where the water and land meet and they offer many benefits to wildlife and people.

Only in the past few decades have scientists and land use specialists come to realize the value of riparian zones. Amongst the most diverse biological systems on earth, riparian zones offer many critical ecological benefits:

Overhanging vegetation and trees shade the stream channel, keeping the water nice and cool.

The vegetation along the streambank helps to hold on to the soil and prevent erosion.

These stream side wetlands also act like huge sponges absorbing and filtering the water, which reduces high flows into the stream.

riparian area studyParts of a Streambank

Stream Channel

This zone is the wetted area located below the average water mark or water level. Generally, the streambank soils next to the stream channel have the most erosion because of the constant water flow. When plants are present in this area, the plants are rooted into the soil beneath the water. Vegetation includes herbaceous species like sedges, rushes, and cattails and are found in the low energy streams or in protected, slow-moving areas of the stream.

Sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses have bumps all the way to the ground.

Riparian Zone

The riparian zone is the area between the average water mark and the average high water mark. The plants that are found here thrive along the banks so long as their root systems are able to access surface water and subsurface flow. When a riparian area contains healthy, native plants, there is less erosion. This zone contains predominately shrubs, willows, and other water-loving plants.

Floodplain

The floodplain is a relatively flat area located adjacent to a river or stream. This area can experience occasional or periodic flooding. When a river breaks its banks and floods, it leaves behind layers of sediment – rock, sand, mud, and silt. These materials gradually build up to create the floor of the floodplain. Here, the soils are a mix of sand, gravel, loam, silt, and clay. These areas are important aquifers, filtering the water drawn from them through these soil combinations. Plants found here often contain a mix of riparian and upland plants and trees – willows, dogwoods, alder, and birch trees as well as large shrubs.

A few years ago, my STEM Club spent the day inundating ourselves in Stream Ecology. Read this post to discover other activities you can use to engage your students.

Transitional Zone

The transitional zone is located between the floodplain and the upland zone. Here, the area is rarely affected by stream flow and floods only once every 50 or so years. This zone is comprised of drier upland trees and large shrubs that do not need to access the stream water or subsurface flow with their roots.

Upland Zone

The uplands consist of land where drier vegetation can be found. The plants and trees here no longer depend upon the surface or subsurface flow of stream water for their survival. However, the taller trees in this zone do create a valuable forest canopy that helps to shade the stream.

Previously, we partnered with the USDA Forest Service to hear first hand how a forester manages a forest and to get a chance to use the real tools of the trade. Read more of our experience in my post, Field, Forest, & Stream: Forest Ecology.

riparian area survey tableRiparian Area Survey

Materials

  • Pen/pencil
  • Tape measure
  • Field notebook
  • Colored pencils (optional)

Procedure

  1. Copy the table above into your field notebook.
  2. Go to a nearby stream and select an area of the streambank and riparian area to study. Measure the area that you have selected.
  3. Complete the table checking the box for each vegetation type you see. If you are able, identify as many as possible.
  4. Choose a section of the length of the stream surveyed and draw the stream and riparian area from a bird’s eye view (from above).
  5. Once you have the basic outline of the area (stream channel, banks, riparian area), begin by marking where you see each type of trees, shrubs, ferns, etc. Use the symbols in the table above to simplify your sketch.
  6. Make sure to draw an arrow in the stream to show the direction of water flow.

Conclusion

  1. Based on your observations at this site, describe any human influences on the riparian area.
  2. What features of the riparian zone do you think are important to fish?
  3. Do you notice any patterns of certain vegetation types and where they are located in relation to the stream? Why do you think that is?

Ecology ExplorationsScience Logic

You will find more activities like this one in my Ecology Explorations curriculum available for purchase in my store. The Life Logic: Ecology Explorations unit that I have developed for middle school students is an easy to implement, hands-on way to learn about ecology. Students will love getting outside, collecting data, and experiencing the physical factors that influence the animal and plant communities in their local area first hand.

 

Rare, Bizarre Creatures from the Deep: An Unexpected Nature Study

I grew up on the Oregon Coast in beautiful Bandon by the Sea. I spent many a day on the shoreline investigating the marine invertebrates under the rock crevices and walking the sandy beaches. My brothers and I longed for the minus tides, providing us the rare opportunity to go spelunking in the sea caves just off shore. These rocky islands are now protected areas for marine bird nesting habitat but back in the 70s, it was our playground.

dune geology tunicates

Dune geology features: foredune and deflation plain

Tracking Marine Debris

In all the years I have spent on the beach, I have found a diverse amount of debris and organisms in varying states of decay. I probably spend an equal amount of time sifting through the wrack on the high tide line as I do in wave zone digging in the sand looking for mole crabs.

I have found marine debris from Japan evidenced by the kanji script. An occasional flip flop or fishing net remnants are not uncommon. While immersing myself in marine biology courses at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology one summer, I even found several squid egg cases that washed ashore after a winter storm, providing my peers and I an opportunity to observe the development up close. Yet, once in a while, I am still surprised at what washes ashore.

tunicates

Walking along the ATV trail across the deflation plain

This past holiday weekend, my family and I enjoyed a leisurely walk on the beach near our home. Our goal was to field test a new marine debris app, a joint initiative between the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative. The tracker app allows you to help make a difference by checking in when you find trash on our coastlines and waterways.*

We drove out to the North Spit and thereafter began our excursion through the deflation plain. We soon discovered, however, that there was too much standing water to stick to the trail that meandered through the wetland area. We thus walked along the ATV road until we reached the small foredune. Just a few feet up and over and we arrived on the sandy beach.

No sooner did we arrive at the shore and we immediately were captivated by the presence of a strange organic material that was strewn across the beach for miles. Upon first glance, it looked like a hard plastic tube resembling a sea cucumber. My first suspicion turned out to be incorrect, however. Upon returning home, I learned that what we had found were actually colonial tunicates. Fascinating!

tunicates rare creatures

Planktonic salps, Pyrosoma atlanticum, strewn across the beach.

What are Tunicates?

This bizarre and rarely-seen creature is called a pyrosome, a species of pelagic colonial tunicates. Their scientific name, Pyrosoma atlanticum, is derived from the Greek words pyro meaning ‘fire’ and soma meaning ‘body’ which refers to the fact that they are known for bright displays of bioluminescence.

Pyrosoma atlanticum are one of the few pyrosomes that make it to the west coast of the U.S. The species found here are less than a foot but can get as long as 24 inches. Largely colorless, they can show up as pink, grayish or purple-green.

tunicates invertebrates

A specimen of the colonial tunicate, Pyrosoma atlanticum 

These massive colonies of cloned creatures are related to a kind of jellyfish called a slap. A tunicate is a marine invertebrate animal, a member of the subphylum Tunicata, which is part of the Chordata, a phylum which includes all animals with dorsal nerve cords and notochords.

Each individual organism is about 1 cm long – less than a third of an inch. They are all connected by tissue and in turn form this colony that looks like a plastic tube. The recent winter storms have caused them to strand on the shores and have been found in all areas of the coast.

Usually found in temperate waters as low as 800 meters. The colony of animals is comprised of thousands of individual zooids and moves through the water column by the means of cilia (an organelle found in eukaryotic cells that project from the much larger cell body).

As they move through the water column, sometimes close to the surface and sometimes as far down as 2600 feet, they filter plankton out of the water for food. As it sucks water in, it then pushes it back out, thereby propelling it through the ocean. It does all this via one opening only, so it moves incredibly slow.

For more images of Pyrosoma, check out Bob Perry’s photographs. Included in his work are a few pseudoconchs (false shells) of the pelagic mollusk Corolla which we similarly found.zoologyIf you are interested in learning more about invertebrates with your students, I encourage you to look into the Amazing Animals curriculum unit I have written to introduce middle level students to zoology. This 10-week unit is full of inquiry-based activities and lesson plans fully outlined for you.

Due to our fascination with these rare creatures, we didn’t spend as much time with the debris tracking app as I had intended. We’ll give it a go another time.

Problem Based Learning with William & Mary

This past school year, my kids and I have been inundated in the study of coastal ecology. The kids worked through the curriculum along side me. Memorizing vocabulary and understand the ecology concepts came easily to them as I’ve immersed them in nature studies since they were toddlers.

We enjoyed several memorable field trips whereupon we developed a list of questions based on our observations: Roosevelt Elk at Dean’s Creek & Foraging for Mushrooms.

We also engaged in several nature study investigations to learn more about the organisms we had observed: Slugs, Snails, and Sea Hares Our Native Maple Trees.

I received this product for free and am being compensated for the time to write the review.  This is an honest review of the product.problem based learning

Yet all along, I knew in my heart that something was missing. While they were engaged in our lessons and activities, they were not captivated. I wanted them to be challenged. I wanted them to struggle to find answers to their questions. I wanted a problem based learning experience.

The units created by William & Mary from Kendall Hunt Publishing provide the perfect challenge. The books provide a wonderful framework for getting students to think, presented in such a way that they want to solve the problem. Along the way, students experience the processes and tools a scientist may use when presented with a difficult problem.

What is Problem Based Learning?

Problem Based Learning is a student-centered pedagogy in which students learn about a subject through the experience of solving an open-ended problem. Students gain content knowledge and develop skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.

When I was given the opportunity to review the William & Mary problem based learning materials, I immediately jumped at the chance. The Animal Populations unit (designed for grades 6-8) was the perfect fit to further our understanding of ecology and wildlife sciences.

william & mary

Problem Based Science Units by William & Mary 

The William & Mary science units introduce real-world problems to initiate scientific investigations. All units incorporate a problem based learning scenario as the catalyst for initiating the discussion of content and scientific investigation.

Students not only focus on specific content learning in science, but they also develop scientific investigation skills as a way to develop the thinking skills of a scientist. Students pose questions, then conduct experiments to answer those questions. They also identify independent and dependent variables, constants, and controls as a guide for quality investigations.

Animal Populations Unit

Animal Populations is centered around the problem of a growing population of deer in a fictitious rural community and the increasing number of people afflicted with lyme disease. The story begins with an email a mother writes to her spouse relaying the symptoms their son has developed.

Immediately, both kids were intrigued and were searching for possible causes. As the story unfolded with newspaper articles and additional personal accounts, they began to collaborate to find solutions to the problem.

In addition to staging the problem, the lessons lead students through the process of inquiry and experimental design. Each step is clearly outlined and in context with the big picture or ecology. We started each lesson with a discussion on the vocabulary and review of where we left off in our previous lesson.

I was really impressed with the lessons on the concept of models. While we are all familiar with physical models, the lessons clarified the meaning of conceptual and mathematical models in-depth. The lessons built on each other and really helped the kids (myself included!) understand the mathematical models of a deer population: exponential growth model and logistic growth model.

deer populationsOur favorite lessons were the field studies whereby we implemented a transect survey. We were fortunate at the time we implemented this unit to be able to partner with a local agency to take part in an ongoing bio-monitoring project at the national estuarine research reserve. Not only was our data useful in the context of our lesson but it was also critical for the success of their long-term estuarine research.

We all enjoyed this unit study as it was both challenging and fun. I look forward to implementing more problem based units in the near future.

Other Science Units

Kendall Hunt Publishing offers several other William & Mary science units to choose from, several have received National Association for Gifted Children’s Curriculum Studies awards.

* Where’s the Beach?—Grades 2-4 
* What A Find!—Grades 2-4  (See Erin’s review at Royal Baloo)
* Acid, Acid Everywhere—Grades 4-6
* Electricity City—Grades 4-6
* Nuclear Energy: Friend or Foe?—Grades 6-8
* Something Fishy—Grades 6-8
* No Quick Fix—Grades 6-8

Unit content has been aligned to national standards and meets national grade level standards as well as standards for grades that are two to three levels above the current grade.

Connect with Kendall Hunt

Follow Kendall Hunt Publishing on your favorite social media. By connecting with them you will get regular updates, information about their products, encouragement for teaching gifted learners as well tips and ideas.

A Look at the Industrious Beaver: Nature’s Engineers {Middle School Unit Study}

North American Beaver (Castor Canadensis) play a critical role in the ecology of our streams. Their dams create pooling of water upstream, which creates wildlife habitat for many dozens of wetland and slow-moving water species that wouldn’t otherwise be in such riparian habitats.

These industrious mammals provide a fascinating topic for middle school science investigations. Here you will find a variety of resources and materials to engage middle schoolers in real science related to nature’s engineers, Castor canadensis.

A Look at the Industrious Beaver: Nature's Engineers (A Middle School Unit Study) @EvaVarga.net

Beaver Anatomy & Physiology

Beavers are the largest rodents in North America, and they spend most of their time in the water. To protect themselves from the cold and wetness they have waterproof reddish brown or blackish brown hair. They have small, round, brown ears, and powerful back legs for swimming. A beaver’s front legs are not as large or as strong as its back legs.

Beaver skulls and teeth are very big. The two front teeth are orange colored, and they can be up to 5 mm wide and between 20 and 25 mm long. These teeth grow throughout the animal’s life, and they are used for cutting wood. Without these teeth beavers could not cut down or eat trees and wood. Beavers also have see-through eye lids, and closable nostrils and ears for swimming underwater.

Beavers also have anal and castor glands, which they use to mark their territory. These glands are located beneath the tail. The beaver utilizes the oily secretion (castoreum) from these scent glands to also waterproof its thick fur.

The beaver has a thick layer of fat under its skin that helps keep it warm underwater. Beavers have long sharp upper and lower incisor teeth that they use to cut into trees and woody vegetation. These teeth grow throughout the beaver’s life. A beaver’s tail is broad, flat, and covered with large black scales.

A Look at the Industrious Beaver: Nature's Engineers (A Middle School Unit Study) @EvaVarga.net

Beaver Ecology & Natural History

Important natural processes, such as energy flows and chemical cycles, result from the interaction of species within a community. Food webs of trophic (trophic – pertaining to nutrition) interactions among species are one example of how multiple soil-plant, plant-plant, plant-animal, and animal-plant relationships link together within a functioning community. Some species can be highly influential in their communities, even if they occur at relatively low population densities. When the presence and actions of this species tend to form the foundation of how other species relate to each other in the community, we often call the influential plant or animal a keystone species.

“Keystone” is a metaphor equated to the stone in the middle of an arch in a building. Removal of the keystone leads to destabilization if not outright collapse of the other elements that “lean on” or depend upon that keystone.

A Look at the Industrious Beaver: Nature's Engineers (A Middle School Unit Study) @EvaVarga.netThe beaver is often cited as an example of a keystone species because through its dam-building behaviors it has major influences on both the vegetation of an area and the water table. In turn, these factors have strong influences on the abundance and quality of habitat for many other plant and animal species within the community. They engineer, or create, habitat that supports greater biodiversity that would otherwise not exist.

No other animal with the exception of man can significantly alter its habitat to suit its own needs and desires. Native Americans revered the beaver and referred to them as “Little People” for this reason.

In one of the first images of its kind, night-vision cameras recently captured photos of native beavers and invasive nutria working together to build a dam across a channel at Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area in Portland, Oregon.

Beaver Unit Study Resources

Act out a short skit to teach others about the natural history of the beaver – its adaptations for its environment as well as the impact humans have had on it throughout history.

Dress up a volunteer as you learn about the structural and behavioral adaptations of beavers.

Explore the website Beavers: Wetlands & Wildlife to learn more about beavers and their impact on the ecology.

Learn about the history of the Fur Trade and Beaver Ecology including numerous Historical Source Documents.

Learn about Beavers and Climate Change Adaptation Strategies – A Report from Wild Earth Guardians.

Download the Beaver Monitoring App and help scientists study how beavers could be used as a tool for stream restoration and mitigating impacts of climate change.

Reach out to your local watershed associations to learn about watershed monitoring and restoration projects that impact beavers. How can you get involved?

Visit and observe an ecosystem created by beavers in your local area (contact Fish & Wildlife for assistance in locating a dam if you are unfamiliar). Keep a journal of your observations.

zoology

You might also be interested in my 10-week inquiry based science unit introducing middle level students to the study of animals: Zoology: Amazing Animals. Lessons include scientific classification, identifying animal tracks, ecology, and animal behavior.