Environmental Science: Our Local Biodiversity & Environmental Impact Statements

The Environmental Science merit badge has been a lot of fun to teach. In many ways, today’s activities were my favorite because they got us outdoors and we were able to visually see examples of local biodiversity, invasive species, erosion, and so much more. We concluded by discussing components of an environmental impact statement.

Today is the final post in the series highlighting the activities I have coordinated as the Environmental Science merit badge counselor for our local Boy Scout Troop.

Biodiversity & an Environmental Impact Statement @EvaVargaOur Local Biodiversity

For requirement #5, we chose two outdoor study areas that are very different from one another (a nearby forested woodland and an area of the sand dune undergoing succession). In small groups, the scouts marked off a study area with flags and counted the number of species found within. They then estimate how much space was occupied by each species and the type and number of nonplant species observed.

After our visit to each area, they were directed to write a report that discusses the biodiversity and population density of the chosen study areas. I look forward to reading their work and discussing what they learned from this experience one-on-one.

Environmental Impact Statements

Requirement #6 of the merit badge requirements is a little vague.

Using the construction project provided or a plan you create on your own, identify the items that would need to be included in an environmental impact statement for the project planned.

I do not know what construction project to which is referred so I was a bit confused. In my opinion, a local real-life construction project would be best suited for this requirement as the boys would have real experience and prior knowledge.

I thereby opted to take the boys for a walk around our neighborhood by which we were able to do several things:

  • visit a residential construction site and talk about the impact the housing development had on the local ecosystem (sand dune)
  • view, from a short distance, the north spit where a liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline terminal has been proposed

Locally, there has been a HUGE political battle in regards to the LNG whereupon we could visually see the north spit where a liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline terminal has been proposed. Along the way, we also observed areas disturbed by construction and thus an abundance of invasive plant species, an open meadow-like area (generally shrubs of both native and invasive species and a variety of wild grasses) the city presumably mowed to reduce wildfire danger, and the site where a WW2 bunker had been removed (this greatly saddened us but I believe the local authorities did so due to fear of litigation).

When we returned home, we discussed the impact the residential construction had on the area as well as the proposed LNG terminal. I pulled up the final Environmental Impact Statement that was released to the public and we walked through components of it for quite some time. It is rather lengthy – over 200 pages – so I aimed to summarize and pull out the key components including:

  • topographical maps
  • proposed roads
  • drafts of engineering plans for containment
  • mitigation plans

The previous posts in this series have touched on the following topics:

Environmental Policy Timeline, Key Terms, & Pollination

How Species Respond to Environmental Changes & Endangered Species

Acid Rain, Pollution Prevention, & Conservation Practices

Environmental Science: Acid Rain, Pollution Prevention, & Conservation Practices

What a joy teaching environmental science has been. Thus far, we’ve learned about the changes in environmental policy and how the Boy Scouts of America have contributed to environmental conservation practices. We have also learned about pollination, environmental changes, and threatened and endangered species.

Today, our focus shifts to acid rain, pollution prevention, and conservation practices we can engage in ourselves.

Each Sunday through the month of September, I will post a description of the activities I coordinated and the resources I used to teach the environmental science merit badge. Today’s post is the third in the series.

Pollution Prevention & Conservation Practices @EvaVarga.netWater Pollution – Oil Spill Activity

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 24, 1989, when an oil tanker bound for Long Beach, California, struck Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef in the wee hours of ht morning and spilled over 10 million gallons of crude oil into the sea.

As the Scouts learned in the Environmental Science Timeline game we played the day prior, this disaster resulted in the International Maritime Organization introducing comprehensive marine pollution prevention rules through various conventions. We discussed this tragedy as I shared several photos and strategies that were used to clean up the oil.

We then engaged in an Oil Spill Experiment of our own. One Scout shared with us a video of an incredible new material – a foam material coated with oil-attracted silane molecules – that absorbs oil but not water. It was fascinating and extended our discussion.

Pollution Prevention & Conservation Practices @EvaVargaAir Pollution – Acid Rain Activity

Acid rain is a broad term that includes any form of precipitation (rain, snow, fog, hail, or even dust) with acidic components, such as sulfuric or nitric acid that fall to the ground from the atmosphere in wet or dry forms. With the aid of the visual above, we discussed the pathway by which precipitation becomes acidic.

While we didn’t undertake the lab outlined below due to time constraints, I encouraged each of the Scouts to set up the lab portion of the activity is to demonstrate the effects of acid rain on our environment.

Materials

  • Six Petri dishes (3 for the control, 3 for the acidic solution you choose to test)
  • Pipette
  • Large bell jar or similar item
  • Sulfuric acid or an alternative acidic solution (lactic acid – milk or a citric acid – lemon juice)
  • Two 2-liter soft drink containers
  • Four small pieces of marble or limestone
  • Small growing plant
  • Four small pieces of raw meat (fish or chicken)
  • Two green leaves
  • Small amount of soil

Procedure

Several days in advance, prepare Petri dishes with soil & stone, leaf, and raw meat (two dishes each). One set is to be the control to which distilled water is added. Add a solution of 50% sulfuric acid to the other set. Keep these in a location that is secure so they don’t accidentally get spilled.

Display the Petri dishes and show the class how the acid has affected soil/stone, plant, and animal materials compared to the items in plain water.  Together discuss what effects they think acid rain would have on the various aspects of their local ecosystem.

Set up the following long-term experiment:

  1. Place the potted plant under the bell jar and add a Petri dish or other small vessel of 10% sulfuric acid. Maintain plant normally including acid solution.
  2. Put about one inch of 10-15% sulfuric acid solution into one of the soft drink containers. Suspend a marble or limestone chip above the solution. Cap tightly.
  3. Duplicate (a) and (b) with water only as controls.
  4. Put a piece of raw meat in each of two Petri dishes; immerse one in water and cover, immerse the other in weak acid solution and cover. Note: these pieces of meat will
    deteriorate but the effect of the acid solution will become evident over a period of time.
reduce pollutionExcerpted from a slide show created by the Utah National Parks Council of the BSA

Pollution Prevention & Conservation

Lastly, we brainstormed a number of ways we could help to reduce pollution and conserve our natural resources. We filled the whiteboard with their ideas and discussed several in more depth.

Each Scout was then directed to choose two to put them into practice for the next couple of weeks. I asked that they keep track of their progress and to report back to me what they learned from the experience.


Join us next week for the final post in the series, whereupon I focus on an outdoor biodiversity study and an environmental impact statement.

Environmental Science: How Species Respond to Environmental Changes

Last week I shared with you three activities I shared with the Scouts. A timeline activity to introduce them to the historical events that have helped shape environmental policy in the United States, key terms bingo, and a fortune teller illustrating the metamorphosis of honey bees.

Today, my focus is on how organisms respond to changes in the environment and endangered species. These activities were selected to meet the requirements for #3a and 3e of the environmental science merit badge.

 Each Sunday through the month of September, I will post a description of the activities I coordinated and the resources I used to teach the environmental science merit badge. Today’s post is the second in the series.

Environmental Changes & How Species Respond @EvaVarga.netResponding to Environmental Changes

Ecologists do not only study organisms; they also study how organisms interact with other organisms and how they interact with the nonliving parts of their environments, like chemicals, nutrients, habitats, and so on.

The range and type of interactions that organisms can have with each other and with their environments are large and complex. Some ecologists focus on how individual organisms respond to their environment. Other ecologists are more interested in how organisms of the same species interact with each other in populations.

Still others spend their days examining how whole populations interact with other populations in a community. At the highest level, some ecologists focus on the big picture, studying the interactions between all of the living and nonliving elements in a given area, or ecosystem.

Natural Environmental Changes

Our environment is constantly changing. Natural disasters can cause drastic environmental changes and if severe enough, even mass extinctions. By examining previous natural disasters – earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and volcanoes to name just a few – and their environmental impacts we can learn what to expect in the future.

We opened our lesson with a discussion on the processes of erosion. The Scouts were asked to submit to me photographs of areas where they had observed erosion and to describe what elements contributed to the process. Here are a few of the photos they submitted:

Why Should We Care?

So, why should we care about ecology? For some communities changes to climate are causing longer droughts, more severe floods, and harsher environments. Let’s put it into perspective with just one case study made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row.

Every year, more than 92 million tons of ocean life (like fish, aquatic plants, and so on) are “harvested” from around the world for human consumption. Billions of people rely on these harvests to sustain life – either for food directly or for their livelihood. A poor understanding of marine ecology can result in disaster.

One of the most well-known of these disasters occurred off of the coast of California in Monterey Bay in the mid-1950s. At the time, this bay was one of the most productive fisheries in the world, particularly sardines. However, before 1960, harvests had plummeted, and, by 1973, the last sardine cannery in Monterey closed its doors forever.

Unfortunately, the fishing industry had not applied common ecological sense in their decisions. Sardines were removed from the bay faster than they could reproduce, resulting in a population crash and the end of an economy.

How Do Caterpillars Respond to Stimuli?

Rainforest CaterpillarsBefore my children were born, I volunteered on an Earthwatch expedition to study Rainforest Caterpillars. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life – particularly when I consider the impact it had on my classroom teaching strategies. While the focus of our study was on Parasitism in Caterpillars, what stands out to me about this experience was the real-time observations we were able to make in the field – recording how the caterpillars responded to mechanical stimuli.

Essentially, we would gently pet them with a small paint brush and then pinch them carefully with a pair of tweezers (enough to get a reaction but not to harm).  We would then record their behavior or reaction to the stimuli.

We did this to get a general idea of how the different species would defend themselves and observed a wide variety of behaviors including thrashing about, rearing up and attempting to bite the attacker (that would be us), as well as and most amusing, kicking frass at us.

If you have caterpillars in your local area, give this a try. How do your local species respond to the same stimuli described above?

How Do Aquatic Organisms Respond to Stimuli?

Materials

  • Living specimen of planktonic aquatic life
  • Droppers
  • Vinegar
  • Caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee
  • Sugar
  • Specimen pipettes
  • Compound micropscope
  • Salt crystals
  • Microscope slides and coverslips
  • Cotton fibers

Procedure

  1. Using a specimen pipette, remove a drop from the collected specimen.
  2. Place culture on the microscope slide and cover. Focus microscope to locate organism.
  3. After first observing normal activity, introduce artificial stimuli so the the response can be observed. Record behavior observations on a chart in a lab notebook.
  4. Prepare a new culture specimen if necessary; repeat steps 1-3.
  5. Carefully place a small salt crystal near some of the swimming organisms. Observe and record their response.
  6. Continue to add each stimuli, observing and recording the behavior each time.
  7. Observe movement. Are new structures visible on the organism? Has movement increased or decreased?

Alternatively, you might consider the Goldfish Lab I shared sometime ago.

Environmental Science Endangered SpeciesEnvironmental Changes & Endangered Species

In addition to the activities and discussion described above, Scouts were expected to write a 100 word (minimum) report an an endangered species of their choice. They were then asked to present what they had learned with the group. In this way, we would have a broader perspective and learn how environmental changes have effected a variety of species.


Join me next week as we explore topics related to pollution and acid rain.

Make Your Own BioPlastics

bio plasticsPlastics play an important role in our lives.  Plastics are used to manufacture many everyday items and have significantly reduced the use of glass.  Some plastics are very durable and make things like furniture and appliances.  Other plastics make items such as diapers, trash bags, cups, utensils and medical devices.  The largest amount of plastic is used to make containers and packaging for items such as soft drink bottles, lids, shampoo bottles, etc. Common plastic is made from petroleum, a fossil fuel which is nonrenewable.

Nonrenewable resources are made naturally by the earth, but do not renew themselves fast enough to be able to count on having the resource for an indefinite period time.  Some resources are considered non-renewable because our access to the resource is limited.  For example, glass and metal are non-renewable resources.  The elements and minerals used to make glass and metal are found in the structure of the earth’s crust, however we are limited to what we can access through mining.

Renewable resources are either naturally reproduced at a sustainable rate or they can be produced in agriculture at a rate equivalent to the demand or need.  For example, corn can be used for ethanol fuel and to produce corn oil.  Corn is a renewable resource.

DIYBioPlasticsBioplastics are a type of plastic made from renewable, biological materials like starches, cellulose, oils or proteins. They generally contain little to no petroleum and therefore are usually biodegradable. When bioplastics are exposed to the environment (sunlight, heat, water, microorganisms) they breakdown into non-toxic compounds like carbon dioxide and water. Additionally, unlike petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics are made from renewable resources. These resources are typically agricultural byproducts, like cornstarch and potato starch, tapioca starch and casein (milk protein).

Biodegradable: refers to material capable of breaking down into harmless products through the action of living organisms or natural processes

Byproducts: in agriculture refers to secondary products created from a crop. For example, corn starch is a byproduct of corn

Make Your Own BioPlastics

Materials

  • Plant based oils (Corn Oil, Sesame Oil, Vegetable Oil)
  • Cornstarch
  • Water
  • Food coloring
  • Measuring spoons
  • Eyedropper (optional)
  • 1 Ziploc bag per student
  • Access to a microwave oven

BioPlasticsProcedure

  1. Place the following ingredients in a plastic bag: 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, 2 drops of oil, 1 tablespoon of water, and 2 drops of food coloring.
  2. Seal the bag and gently mix the cornstarch mixture by rubbing the outside of the bag with your fingers until combined.
  3. Open the bag slightly, making sure it can vent. Place the bag in a microwave oven on high for 20-25 seconds.
  4. Carefully remove the bag from the microwave and let it cool for a few minutes. While it is still warm, students can try to form their plastic into a ball. Observe what it does.
  5. Ask them to describe their plastic; did it turn out differently than others? Does the type of oil you used affect the bioplastic? Have the students name three things they could make with bioplastic.

Take it Further

I’m committed to sharing activities and resources for teaching science in your homeschool. I believe it is helpful to see that science isn’t scary and it doesn’t require special curriculum. Here are a few resources that you can use to further your study of plastics and renewable vs. nonrenewable resources.

Watch the 3-minute How Stuff Works video clip about Corn Plastic.

In this hands-on, inquiry based Plastics Lab Activity, students investigate whether all plastics the same? How are they different?

Polymers Are Cool ~ Experiment with different polymers, large molecules composed of many repeated subunits, with these 3 great recipes.

As plastics are not biodegradable, learn how you can make a difference in encouraging others to reduce our use of plastics. The volunteers at Washed Ashore inspired us to create a Bottle Cap Mural to help spread the word of the harm done to our oceans by plastics.