Agriculture in the Classroom: Free Teaching Resources

As we become for technologically advanced and our urban cities grow, I believe it is increasingly important for our youth to have an understanding of where our food comes from – both historically and today.

Whether you live in Atlanta or rural Nebraska, in the mountains or along the coast, engaging students in real world experiences and developing an awareness of agricultural practices is not difficult. There are many free teaching resources available for educators of all ages.

By encouraging teachers to integrate agriculture into their classroom via authentic, core curriculum concepts, Agriculture in the Classroom partners have collaborated to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of the food and fiber system that we all rely on every day.

classroomagriculture

An agriculturally literate person is defined as “one who understands and can communicate the source and value of agriculture as it affects our quality of life.”

Take some time to explore the variety of resources available – I share a few of my favorites below. You can put together an entire semester course or pick and choose a few lessons to augment your current studies.

 

Plant & Animal Science

Agriculture has traditionally been defined by the production of plants and animals. Today, science and technology have added new areas of research, and investigation to the agriculture field.

agricultureExtension 4-H professionals have developed a wealth of curriculum materials and a variety of hands-on agriculturally based activities to promote agricultural literacy among young people. Much is available for free but some curriculum modules are available for purchase.

Soil Science

To help educate students about the important role soil nutrients play in feeding our world, the Nutrients for Life Foundation sends out a monthly newsletter that will provide you with new ideas and tips for teaching plant and soil science while providing creative activities to bring into your classroom. They have also developed numerous modules for elementary, middle and high school classrooms to provide STEM activities and lessons.

soilscienceSoil Science Reader :: A digital science journal specifically designed for grades 7-8 (graphics and photographs capture interest) introduces soil formation and soil horizons with a fun edible soil activity. Other topics include the nitrogen cycle, plant nutrition, and fertilizer basics featuring the 4R Nutrient Stewardship.

Soil Reader :: Written specifically 5th & 6th grade students, this 18-page digital journal features an interview with an agriculture engineer and features puzzles, quizzes, and visuals to enhance a teacher’s soil unit.

For complete curriculum, posters, games, flashcards, and much more – visit the Nutrients For Life webstore. Everything is FREE!!

Invasive Species

Hundreds of invasive plants and animals have become established across the country and are rapidly spreading each year. These invaders are negatively impacting our waters, our native plants and animals, our agriculture, our health, our economy, and our favorite recreational places.

Prevention is the most effective strategy in managing invasive species. To increase public awareness of invasive species issues and promote public participation in the fight against invasive species and their impacts on our natural resources, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife have developed curriculum and materials available free to schools and educators.invasivespecies

Stop the Invasion :: Students will learn about six different invasive species, the damage they cause, and how to stop their spread.

If you reside in California, you may also be interested in the community action week with events across the state and a youth art contest. Similar programs may exist in your state. Contact your local department of fish and wildlife or county extension agency to learn more.

A Look at Insect Galls

Have you ever seen weird bumps growing on stems, leaves, buds, or flowers? You might be surprised to learn that these odd growths are not the plant’s idea at all but are caused by a fly, wasp, midge, or other insect.

How Are Galls Formed?

The goldenrod gall, for example, is formed by one kind of gall fly. The female picks out a tender spot on a growing tip of the plant where she deposits an egg and flies off. When the larva hatches out of the egg, it will bore into the plant. As it does so, it excretes a chemical which causes this part of the plant to enlarge into the swelling that we call a gall. Soon the larva is surrounded by this enlarged tissue, essentially its gall house.

Through the summer months, the larva will eat away at the inside of the house. In autumn, the plan dies and the gall turns brown and hard. At this time, the larva digs a tunnel out to the skin of the gall, but does not break through. Instead, it curls up to await spring at which point it will pupate and eventually emerge as an adult gall fly.Insect Galls: A Nature Study @EvaVarga.net

Galls Are Diverse

There are many kinds of galls and each is formed in a different way. In my earlier post, Galls: A Nature Study, I shared the small variety of galls we’ve encountered in our nature studies.

In North America, more types of galls are found on Oaks than on any other kind of plant. They can turn up on many different kinds of plants, however. Including flowers, ferns, and even mushrooms.

 

Symbiotic Relationships

Not all galls are started by insects. Some are caused by mites or nematodes (tiny worms). Fungi and bacteria can also cause galls to form.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria are microorganisms capable of transforming atmospheric nitrogen into fixed nitrogen (inorganic compounds usable by plants). More than 90 percent of all nitrogen fixation is effected by these organisms, which thus play an important role in the nitrogen cycle.

Even though the galls may deform the plant, they usually don’t do serious harm. Galls also provide a food source for many animals – including woodpeckers and many other insects.

Some galls are even useful to humans. The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Africa make a powerful poison for their arrow tips from crushed gall wasps. In the states, galls that fall from Oak trees are sometimes used by farmers to feed their livestock.Insect Galls: A Nature Study @EvaVarga.net

Bring it Home

Undertaking the activities described below provide students with an opportunity to begin to examine the affect of environmental conditions on galls and insect growth. Students also develop an appreciation and understanding of the complex interactions among plants and animals.

Materials

  • collection jars
  • glue
  • old nylon stockings
  • an intact gall (one without an exit hole)
  • dissecting knife
  • rubber band

Gall Dissection

The larva lies at the center of the gall. Use a dissecting knife or other sharp tool to make an incision in the gall parallel to the stem, but off center. Create a small window so the larva is clearly visible.

Put a little glue around the perimeter of the window and press it against the inside wall of a jar. You will now be able to observe the larva as it develops. Keep track of your observations in your notebook.

Larval Development

Place the gall inside a collection container with nylon stretched over the opening and secured with the rubber band. Make observations of the changes that take place as the insect develops and emerges from the gall.

Most specimens should emerge in approximately 3 weeks.

Inquiry Activities

Design an experiment to explore the effect of different environmental factors such as light, temperature, or moisture. For example, does the amount of light affect the development of the larva?

Once you start looking, you’ll likely find lots of galls. Insect galls are fascinating.

Our Annual Ladybug Hike

Some species of native ladybugs in North America are disappearing. In just the last 20 years these beneficial predators of farm and garden pests have become extremely rare. This rapid decline is of great concern. Recognizing the need to take action, a number of schools in New York State began the Lost Ladybug Project in 2004.

The Lost Ladybug Project is a citizen science project that people of all ages to look for any ladybugs they can find, and then send in pictures of each one. One of the first major discoveries came in 2006 when Jilene (age 11) and Jonathan (age 10) Penhale found a rare ninespotted ladybug near their Virginia home. This was the first ninespotted ladybug seen in the eastern U.S. in 14 years. Their finding confirmed that the species was not extinct and that with enough people working together we can find even these rare species.

With recent funding from the National Science Foundation the Lost Ladybug Project has expanded and now anyone in North America can participate. Both common and rare ladybugs, whether native or introduced, are important to find. They all contribute to understanding where different species of ladybugs can be found and how rare they really are. Once we know where the rare ladybugs can be found, we can try to protect their habitat and save them!

ladybughikeWe have been participating since 2012 when we first learned of the project. You can read about our earlier discoveries here:

 All About Ladybugs

What do ladybugs eat? A single ladybug larva will eat about 400 medium-size aphids during its development to the pupal stage. Males may eat less but an adult female will eat about 300 medium-size aphids before she lays eggs. She can eat about 75 aphids in a day and may consume more than 5,000 aphids in her lifetime!

Did you know that ladybugs use their antennae to touch, smell, and taste?

What would happen if all the ladybugs were gone? Both adult and larval ladybugs are known primarily as predators of aphids but they also prey on many other soft-bodied insects and insect eggs. Many of these are agricultural pest such as scale insects, mealybugs, spider mites and eggs of the Colorado Potato Beetle and European Corn Borer. A few ladybugs feed on plant and pollen mildews and many ladybugs supplement their meat diet with pollen.

Beetles chew from side to side, not up and down, like people do.

How did ladybugs get their name? The most common legend is that during the middle ages in Europe, swarms of aphids were destroying crops. The farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary for help – and help came in the form of beetles that devoured the plant-destroying pests and saved the crops! The grateful farmers named these insects “Our Lady’s beetles,” a name which had endured to present day.

How long do they live? After a female lays her eggs, they will hatch in between three and ten days, depending on ambient temperature. The larva will live and grow for about a month before it enters the pupal stage, which lasts about 15 days. After the pupal stage, the adult lady beetle will live up to one year.

ladybughike2Why are they so brightly colored? Why do they have spots?  The bright colors serve as a warning to indicate to any potential predators of the distasteful repellents the beetle will release if attacked. The spots are part of the bright warning pattern and vary depending upon species.

What eats ladybugs? Lady beetles are not commonly eaten by birds or other vertebrates, who avoid them because they exude a distasteful fluid and commonly play dead to avoid being preyed upon. However, several insects, such as assassin bugs and stink bugs, as well as spiders may commonly kill ladybugs.

How many different species are there in the US? In the world? There have been over 500 species of ladybugs identified in the United States, and over 4500 in the entire world. Only about 70 of these are the cute red, yellow, and black ones we think of most.

Ladybugs can be found all over the world and can move between continents. Introductions of new species can affect natives. What you will be doing as part of the Lost Ladybug Project is sampling the ladybugs in your habitats.

Inquiry Challenge

The degree to which specific ladybug species are associated with particular plant hosts (or their prey) is still an unsolved mystery. This would make a wonderful science fair project for advanced students.

You may also be interested in my Ultimate Guide to Studying Insects. Here you will find links to curriculum and resources for the major insect orders.

If you are interested in participating in the Lost Ladybug Project, visit the website to learn more. There is also an app to enable you a fast way to upload and share images on the go!
ladybugs journal

We’ve always enjoyed taking part in the monthly challenges at Handbook of Nature Study. This month, our selected challenge was Incorporate a Photo. Later in the week, we utilized one of our photos to create a nature journal entry to commemorate our outing.

Science Milestones: Jean-Henri Fabre

jhfabreJean-Henri Fabre is best known for his popularization of insect natural history. Although a reclusive amateur, with no scientific training, he was an acute observer of insect behavior. He combined his observations (most made in his own backyard) with an easy to read writing style that made his books popular.

The ten volumes of Souvenirs Entomologiques attracted only mild attention when they were first published. Fabre was 84 when the last volume appeared, and he was “discovered” soon afterwards. He was elected to numerous scientific societies, provided a government pension, and even the President of France came to visit him.

Biography

FabreJean Henri Casimir Fabre was a French entomologist born at Saint-Léons in Aveyron, France on December 22, 1823.

He earned teaching certificate at the young age of 19 and began teaching in Carpentras. He was a popular teacher, however, he is probably best known for his study of insects, and is considered by many to be the father of modern entomology.

Much of his enduring popularity is due to his marvelous teaching ability and his manner of writing about the lives of insects in biographical form. He died on October 11, 1915.

One of his most notable discoveries was in regards to insect pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals released from the body of animals and insects that are used to attract mates or relay danger.

L’Harmas, Fabre’s house at Sérignan in the Vaucluse northeast of Orange, was well screened by trees. In a series of key experiments, initially studying the Great Peacock Moth, Fabre found that a female moth could attract males over large distances, even on stormy nights.

It is smell, therefore, that guides the Moths, that gives them information at a distance“.

He deduced that the male antennae had something to so with it, noted that surrounding the female with trays of molecules like naphthalene or lavender oil did not deflect the males from their aim, and observed that males were attracted to an empty cage where the female had spent the previous evening.

Bring it Home

Science Milestones

Visit my Science Milestones page to learn more about scientists whose discoveries and advancements have made a significant difference in our lives or who have advanced our understanding of the world around us.

The Ultimate Guide to Studying Insects

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by insects. I have curated an insect collection of my own for years and I love sketching them in my nature journal.

Insects are all around us and their abundance makes them the perfect introduction to the world of zoology. Studying insects is a wonderful experience for upper grades to begin using the taxonomic binomial naming system for the first time.

ultimate guide insects

An Introduction to Insects or Basic Entomology

Insects belong to the phylum Arthropoda. As such, they have a hard exoskeleton which they molt several times as they grow, bilateral symmetry, and jointed appendages (legs and antennae).  The arthropod phylum is the largest in the animal kingdom – more arthropods than any other animal.

The phylum can be further divided into four classes:  Insects – 3 pairs of legs, Arachnids (spiders & mites) – 4 pairs of legs, Crustaceans (crabs & lobsters) – 5 pairs of legs, and Millipedes & Centipedes.

If you are looking for a fun, hands-on curriculum for upper elementary or middle school students, I have compiled a number of my favorite lesson plans in a unit study approach, Introductory Entomology. Through hands-on activities, real life simulations, and multi-media presentations this six-week unit incorporates more than 10 entomology lessons and suggested extension activities.

I have also gathered a number of great resources and lesson plan ideas from across the web to provide you with the ultimate guide to studying insects.  You’ll most assuredly find inspiration and activities galore – many of which include free notebooking printables. The following list should get you started on your insect studies:

  • Bug Collecting – A step-by-step guide to collecting bugs and insects
  • Adventures with Insects & Critters – All about collecting and keeping insects and other small critters
  • Conduct an Insect Survey – Collect data to calculate the diversity of insects; includes a free notebooking printable
  • Aquatic Science: Spring Pond Study – Get the kids outside equipped with a small wash tub, an ice-cube tray, and this free download to investigate aquatic critters
  • BugScope – Provides free interactive access to a scanning electron microscope so that students can explore the world of insects
  • Integrated Pest Management – One of the lessons in my Introductory Entomology unit engages kids in a cooperative learning, simulated experience
  • Keep a journal of your observations – See Cicada for a spectacular example
  • The Xerces Society – A nonprofit that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. Find a wealth of insect resources on their website.

When teaching about insects in middle school, I feel it is important to introduce them to the use of a dichotomous key and to provide ample opportunity to practice classification skills. I put together a PowerPoint presentation to introduce kids to the differences between insect orders. You can download the presentation here:  Insect Classification.

damselflyIn addition to the broad resources I have shared above, I have also compiled a number of hands-on activities specific to insect orders.  You may wish to study insects one order at a time or perhaps you have a budding coleopterists (an entomologist who specializes in the study of beetles) in your family.  The links provided here are grouped according to the most common insect orders:

Lepidoptera:

Hymenoptera:

Odonata:

Orthoptera:

Hemiptera:

  •  Links coming soon

Other:

june beetle noseLiterature Connections & Lapbooks


There are numerous non-fiction books about insects.  One of my favorite books is a book of poems by Paul Fleishman, Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Written to be read aloud by two voices – sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneous – this collection of 14 poems celebrates the insect world, from the short life of the mayfly to the love song of the book louse.

While I highly recommend the print version for the gorgeous illustrations by Eric Beddows, I also recommend the audio version – particularly if poems written for two voices is unfamiliar to you. Upon listening to this book, my kids delighted in creating insect poems of their own.

In my quest to share with you the best of the best, I came across a few wonderful posts that are perfect for younger siblings:

Citizen Science

There are numerous opportunities for people of all ages to explore insects and contribute to real, ongoing research.

caterpillar

Field Trips & Excursions

Many zoos and aquariums have special exhibits that feature insects.  I’ve highlighted a few here but be sure to contact natural history museums and zoos in your local area.  While smaller venues may not have a permanent exhibit, they may feature insect exhibits periodically in their rotation.

Career Opportunities

Students in upper grades may already have an idea that a career in biology or zoology is in their future.  Some may be interested in collecting insects and not realize that their hobby can actually be a possible career.  If you are interested in learning more about the possible career options in entomology, read my post Science Career Options: Entomology Careers.

Insect Hotels: Nesting Habitat for Mason Bees

The plight of the honey bee and other pollinators is of concern to me.  Insect hotels or habitat for insects is the perfect project for our Roots & Shoots group to show care and concern for animals.  It was also a great introduction  to service learning for my STEM Club kids.  I thereby invited both groups to join us for a day of insect revelry.

I began by introducing the kids to the Mason bee, the common name for a species of bees in the genus Osmia, of the family Megachilidae (Blue Orchard and Hornfaced the best known species). They are so named for their habit of making compartments of mud in their nests, which are made in hollow reeds or holes in wood made by wood-boring insects.

Unlike honey bees (Apis) or bumblebees, Osmia are solitary; every female is fertile and makes her own nest, and there are no worker bees for these species. The bees emerge from their cocoons in the spring, with males the first to come out. They remain near the nests waiting for the females. When the females emerge, they mate. The males die, and the females begin provisioning their nests.

Osmia females like to nest in narrow holes or tubes, typically naturally occurring tubular cavities. Most commonly this means hollow twigs, but sometimes abandoned nests of wood-boring beetles or carpenter bees, or even snail shells. They do not excavate their own nests. The material used for the cell can be clay or chewed plant tissue. One species (Osmia avosetta) in the palearctic ecozone is known for lining the nest burrows with flower petals.

Females then visit flowers to gather pollen and nectar. Once enough provisions have been gathered, she backs into the hole and lays an egg. Then she creates a partition of “mud”, which doubles as the back of the next cell. The process continues until she has filled the cavity. Female-destined eggs are laid in the back of the nest, and male eggs towards the front. Once a bee has finished with a nest, she plugs the entrance to the tube, and then may seek out another nest location.

By summer, the larva has consumed all of its provisions and begins spinning a cocoon around itself and enters the pupal stage. The adult matures either in the fall or winter, hibernating inside its protective cocoon. Most Osmia species are found in places where the temperature drops below 0°C for long durations, like Canada, and they are well adapted to cold winters.

insecthotelsBuild It & They Will Come

Maintaining Mason bee habitats or insect hotels can be a simple, yet powerful way for people of all ages to intimately connect with the awesomeness of nature. Mason bees don’t sting unless they’re squashed or squeezed so they’re kid and pet friendly and don’t require protective clothing or training to work with. Since they’re sociable but solitary, there’s no need to coax colonies into complex forms. A well-designed and well-built habitat with ample nearby pollen sources will naturally attract mason bees, can allow intimate year-round observation of their lifecycle, and especially for teachers, parents and community garden programs be a powerful real-world teaching tool.

Mason bees are increasingly cultivated to improve pollination for early spring flowers. They are used sometimes as an alternative, but more often alongside European honey bees. Most mason bees are readily attracted to nesting holes; reeds, paper tubes, or nesting trays. Drilled blocks of wood are an option, but do not allow one to harvest the bees, which is vital to control a build-up of pests.

I found the post, Housing Mason Bees at Bees, Birds, & Butterflies particularly useful as I researched the how-tos for building insect hotels.  You can also purchase pre-made insect hotels from a variety of sources.  For example, Esschert Design Bee House. The kids had a great time building their own and it allowed their creativity to show.  Most of the kids recycled materials (soup cans, two liter bottles, etc.) to create a cylinder to hold bamboo and paper tubes. Many of the kids stated they wanted to build a wooden frame around their tubes and planned to finish their projects at home.

Attract Pollinators with Native Plants

To help bees and other pollinating insects (butterflies) you should provide a range of plants that will offer a succession of flowers, pollen, and nectarthrough the whole growing season. Patches of foraging habitat can be created in many different locations, from backyards and school grounds to golf courses and city parks. Even a small area planted with the right flowers will be beneficial those with small yards shouldn’t hesitate to do their part.

  • Use local native plants.
  • Choose several colors of flowers; particularly attractive to bees are blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow.
  • Plant flowers in clumps.
  • Include flowers of different shapes. Bees are all different sizes, have different tongue lengths, and will thereby feed on different shaped flowers. 
  • Have a diversity of plants flowering all season.

Contact your local extension agency to learn what plants are native to your area.  You may also find useful fact sheets provided by The Xerces Society.

Additional books & resources:

Homegrown Learners