To help students understand the role of fire, weather, climate, etc., and their effects on ecosystems through student involvement in environmental monitoring, data collection, journaling, and map production.
This lesson uses a book called Ricky’s Atlas: Mapping a Land on Fire by Judith L. Li, with illustrations by M.L. Herring. This book is one of the winners of the 2017 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. If you have not read the book yet, you can read a review of Ricky’s Atlas titled Fire in the forest, written by Marc Lavine in the December 5, 2016, edition of the journal Science.
According to Science for All Americans, “Ecosystems are shaped by the nonliving environment of land and water—solar radiation, rainfall, mineral concentrations, temperature, and topography. The world contains a wide diversity of physical conditions, which creates a wide variety of environments: freshwater and oceanic, forest, desert, grassland, tundra, mountain, and many others.” (Science for All Americans, p. 65.)
Fire is a physical condition that can have a large impact on an ecosystem. In Ricky’s Atlas, fire and its effect on the ponderosa pine forest ecosystem plays a central role in the story. A nice feature of this story is what the characters (Ricky and friends) discover after fire burns through the forest. The characters in the story look for and find many living creatures in the burned area after the fire is extinguished. As the story develops, the characters are involved in helping to establish a scientific study of the burned area. Most importantly, transects are used to monitor the burned ponderosa pine forest.
Monitoring is one tool scientists can use after physical conditions change in an ecosystem to see what the biological response is to a disturbance (fire in the case of this story). To simulate what occurs in the book, your students will set up a simple transect to monitor a physical change and the biological response to this change on your school grounds. Suggestions for additional hands-on activities are also included at the end of this lesson.
As you go through this lesson with your students, you should be aware of some common student misconceptions that are related to concepts in this book.
- Except for a few major changes due to large volcanoes that have erupted or meteorites that have struck the earth, environmental conditions have stayed the same throughout the history of the earth.
- Except for minor fluctuations from year to year, environmental conditions have stayed the same throughout the history of the earth.
- Since the time when life began, conditions have remained the same in the oceans but have changed on land.
- Environmental conditions did not change in the past, but they are changing now.
- Environmental conditions have changed in the past, but are no longer changing.
- There have been no changes to the physical environment of the earth since life began.
(Misconceptions are taken from Benchmarks for Science Literacy.)
Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:
Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.
Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6-8 texts and topics.
Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to an understanding of the topic.
Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.
Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions for further research and investigation.
If you have never run a research project before, it might help to spend some time looking at the following web resources to give you an idea of how basic, student-run investigations can be used in the classroom.
- Using Data in the Classroom tool
- The Kid’s Guide to Exploring Nature lesson
- The Amateur Naturalist tool
You can also use the instructions from this Grasslands and Climate Change teacher sheet, which provides an example transect layout.
AAAS's Project 2061 offers a number of teaching guides for special topics, including Communicating and Learning About Global Climate Change: An Abbreviated Guide for Teaching Climate Change (pdf), which may offer helpful background information.
The teacher sheets provide some answers to the questions from the reading. Note: Answers for the Application, Transect Set Up, Data Collection, Data Analysis, and Conclusions student sheets are completely dependent on the type of variables your students study on your school grounds, school forest, or other area(s) you have access to for this lesson; therefore, no corresponding teacher sheets are provided here. An example transect layout can be accessed in the Grasslands and Climate Change lesson (linked above). Please have your students lay out their plans for this lesson using the corresponding student sheets, which will help them apply what they have learned in Ricky’s Atlas to their own location. Each sheet progressively steps them through the process of laying out a scientific study from using transects to data collection and analysis and drawing conclusions about their study.
Note: If you are setting up transects in the school yard, forms or additional paperwork may be required to use school grounds, forewarn maintenance, etc., depending on your school's policies and procedures.
To begin this lesson, assign the reading of Ricky’s Atlas as homework. Be sure to provide students with the Ricky’s Atlas student sheet. As they read the book, they should answer the questions on the sheet. After students have read the book, hold a class discussion using the Ricky’s Atlas teacher sheet to go over the questions. Focus on any science misconceptions they might have regarding the topics discussed.
Now, students should reread chapters 6-7, "After Fire" and "The Prairie," in class. They should focus on how scientists in the story monitor the burned area of the forest. This is an excellent opportunity for you to discuss how scientists can monitor an area after a disturbance (fire in the story) occurs. Students can answer questions orally in class or can write their individual answers on the Ricky’s Atlas Revisited student sheet and then you should discuss the questions and answers as a class using your Ricky’s Atlas Revisited teacher sheet. Focus on any science misconceptions they might have regarding the topics discussed.
Now transition from the book to your own school grounds. Transition from fire and monitoring in Ricky’s Atlas to other physical conditions that could be monitored locally. Recognizing that most schools don’t have access to forests, prairie, or wetlands, hereafter, the term “school grounds” will be used in this lesson. However, if you have access to other local areas, consider monitoring one or more of these areas, too. This is a great opportunity to get students outside to make observations in the field.
After reading and discussion of the book, students should use their Application student sheet to brainstorm ideas for the local physical conditions (e.g., solar radiation changes over the seasons, temperature, and precipitation) they’d like to focus on and that could change over time on your school grounds. They should consider how changes in these physical conditions affect the school grounds’ ecosystem that currently exists. They also should think about how they would use transects and the type of data they would collect.
Option 1: If you would like to have your current class of students work on a research topic in the short-term (one month up to one season during the current academic school year), you can provide them with the physical condition(s) and biological response(s) to monitor. Or, if you would like your students to select these, use a few of these prompts to get them talking:
- What do you predict would happen to the plants and animals on our school grounds if we experienced a drought this school year?
- How could these organisms survive a short-term drought?
- What changes will we see on our school grounds from fall to winter or from winter to spring this year?
- What adaptations do our local flora (plants) and fauna (animals) have for dealing with seasonal changes?
- How could we monitor changes in precipitation on our school grounds over one month or one season this school year?
- How could we also monitor the corresponding biological changes which would occur due to changes in precipitation?
- How could we monitor changes in temperature and solar radiation over one month or one season and also monitor the corresponding biological changes as well?
Option 2: If you would like to have students in this and future classes work on the same research topic in the long-term (over many years with students from future classes collecting and analyzing data), you can provide them with the physical condition(s) and biological response(s) to monitor. Since you will use these same physical and biological response variables over many years, you may want to dictate which variables are used. Or, if you would like your students from the first class to select these variables to be used by future classes, use a few of these prompts to get them talking:
- What do you predict would happen to the plants and animals on our school grounds if we experienced a long-term drought over many years?
- How could these organisms survive long-term drought?
- What are the seasonal changes we see year after year on our school grounds?
- What adaptations do our local flora (plants) and fauna (animals) have for dealing with seasonal changes?
- How could we monitor changes in precipitation on our school grounds over many years?
- How could we also monitor the corresponding biological changes which would occur over the years?
- How could we monitor changes in temperature and solar radiation over many years and monitor biological changes as well?
Now, as a class or individually, students should look at local climate conditions using the Weather School @ AAAS as a resource. With this resource, students can explore how different factors—time of the year, location, or elevation—work together to produce the day-to-day weather they experience in their local community as well as the overall climate for the region of the world where they live.
Use this resource with your students to produce a drawn illustration or graphic similar to the figure on pages 48-49 in the book but for your town, region, and/or state. Again, you are transitioning from what was done in Ricky’s Atlas to something your students would like to research.
Students should use the Transect Set Up student sheet to help them monitor the biological response to the physical conditions they’ve chosen to study. If you stick with monitoring as was used in Ricky’s Atlas, transects and basic observations are the focus. They should consult pages 22-23 to help them make a scaled map. They also should reread chapters 6 and 7 and consider the monitoring that was done in the burned forest (chapter 6) and the prescribed burn in the prairie (chapter 7). Students should look at pages 94-95; these pages provide an idea of how to set up transects (page 95) and collect data (see the data sheet used in the story on page 94). See also the description in Ricky’s Atlas on page 77.
Once students have set up their transects, they should then think about data collection. They should use their Data Collection student sheet to help them brainstorm ideas for how they could monitor the physical conditions and biological response(s) of their choice. If your students are also interested in experimental work and monitoring, an example of this can be found in the Simulating Climate Change Research in Grasslands lesson. They should then use the data sheet they created to help them collect the data for their transect.
After students have collected the data, they should use the Data Analysis student sheet to help them analyze it. For this analysis, they should look at patterns in the data. They can consult pages 27, 37, and 48-49 in Ricky’s Atlas for examples of patterns.
Finally, once students have looked at the patterns in the data, they should use the Conclusions student sheet to help them explain it all.
The end product of this lesson is for your students to apply what they learned from Ricky’s Atlas by setting up, collecting, and analyzing data and producing an explanation for their findings. This process of setting up a monitoring program and collecting data is at the heart of Ricky’s Atlas. As seen in the book, fire can have a large and lasting effect on a forest ecosystem (relate this to the quote in the Context section, Science for All Americans, p. 65). Using transects as a tool to quantitatively and/or qualitatively monitor an ecosystem gives scientists a way to track those changes. Over the years, scientists in the story used transects to monitor the different species of plants and other organisms as they grew, recovered, or returned to the burned ponderosa pine forest.
Using transects as a basic monitoring tool is at the heart of this lesson too. Using this lesson will help you set up a monitoring program which can potentially get your students actively involved in many hours of field work and scientific discovery. With the help of your students, you can track changes in your school grounds over many years.
You can use all or some of the student sheets as assessment tools. Grading answers on the Ricky’s Atlas student sheet will give you an idea of your students’ understanding of the effects of fire on a forest and the use of fire as a tool in prescribed burns. Grading answers on the Ricky’s Atlas Revisited student sheet will allow you to assess student understanding regarding transects as a tool for monitoring changes in habitats. Grading the rest of the student sheets will give you a picture of your students’ abilities to develop a plan of scientific study, collect and analyze data, and draw conclusions.
Sets of developed assessment questions can also be used to determine if your students understand related science concepts after reading Ricky’s Atlas. Questions and their answers can be found at the AAAS Science Assessment website.
- Select the Evolution and Natural Selection topic. Next, select the Items & Student Performance tab under “There are similarities and differences between organisms living today and those that lived in the past.” Several questions provided assess knowledge regarding fossils and extinct species. Some of these questions relate to chapter 4, Ancient Times in Ricky’s Atlas.
- Select the Interdependence in Ecosystems topic. Next, select the Items & Student Performance tab under “All organisms…referred to as a food web.” Several questions provided assess knowledge regarding organisms and the need for food. Throughout Ricky’s Atlas, there are organismal interactions. Cows grazing on grass and alfalfa. Magpies eating fruit, grains, beetles, and maggots. Elk grazing on shrubs. Humans hunting deer and elk. Woodpeckers eating insects. Hawks looking for a meal. These relate to some of the questions in this section.
- Select the Weather and Climate I and II topics. Several questions provided in these topics assess knowledge regarding temperature and water on Earth. Some of these questions relate to reading material throughout Ricky’s Atlas.
One focus in this book is on fire and other environmental conditions that affect the ecosystems found in eastern Oregon. The focus of this lesson is on producing a monitoring program of a local environment around your school. There are, however, additional hands-on activities linked to this story that could be explored by your students.
1. JOURNALING: Drawings of flora & fauna are found throughout this entire book. Use these drawings in Ricky’s Atlas as inspiration for student produced drawings of your local flora and fauna. Help with setting up and using journals can be found in Nature Drawing: A tool for learning (Leslie, C.W., Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., Dubuque, IA, 1995) and Keeping a Nature Journal: Drawing a whole new way of seeing the world around you (Leslie, C.W. & C.E. Roth, Storey Books. Pownal, VT, 2000). Additional help with flora and fauna drawings and illustration can be found in Field Guides: Birds (Julivert, M.A., Enchanted Lion Books, 2006) and Field Guides: Trees (Julivert, M.A., Enchanted Lion Books, 2007). The Science NetLinks lesson Using Field Notebooks for Biodiversity Study provides additional information on this topic.
2. FIELD GUIDE OR ATLAS: Related to #1 above, have students produce an atlas of local “critters,” rocks, geological formations, clouds, etc. Use Ricky’s cloud or star atlases on pages 102-103 as examples. Additional help with cloud and other weather-related drawings and illustration can be found in Field Guides: Weather (Banqueri, E., Enchanted Lion Books, 2005). Use local field guides for identification of local flora and fauna. Field guides also provide examples of illustration techniques.
3. MAPPING: Ricky’s Atlas is loaded with maps. An obvious extension is using these maps as examples for student produced scaled maps. Students could produce local topographic maps; this is especially relevant if you live an area with hills or mountains. Google Maps are a great place to start.
4. REGIONAL GEOLOGIC/FOSSIL HISTORY: Your students could make similar journal entries to those in Ricky’s Atlas on pages 56-57 using resources on geologic and fossil events from your region of the world.
5. REGIONAL HISTORIC TIME: As in #4 above, your students could make similar journal entries to those in Ricky’s Atlas on pages 68-69 using resources on historical human events from your region of the world.
Students may enjoy these other related resources:
- Ellie’s Log: Exploring where the great tree fell. (Li, J.L., Oregon State University Press, 2013)
- Ricky’s Atlas YouTube video