Today, The Learning Partnership joins the United Nations, as well as countries all over the world, in honoring World Wildlife Day. In December 2013, to commemorate the March 3, 1973 adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, the United Nations General Assembly declared March 3 as World Wildlife Day. World Wildlife Day reminds us to celebrate the breathtaking biodiversity of Earth, and to learn more about the many fascinating species that inhabit our planet. In this spirit, we share an inside peek at a science curriculum that brings the biodiversity of Puerto Rico’s El Yunque rainforest into middle school science classrooms.

For over two decades, educators at The Learning Partnership have been collaborating with rainforest ecologists to codesign the Journey to El Yunque middle-school ecology curriculum. The curriculum offers a unique approach to science education: students learn by using real-world data to explore real-world scientific problems. Research studies have found this approach has benefits for student engagement and motivation, as well as for science learning (McGee, Durik, & Zimmerman, 2015; McGee, Durik, Zimmerman, McGee-Tekula, and Duck, 2018). 

In Journey to El Yunque, students explore how hurricanes affect different plants and animals that live in the El Yunque rainforest. Journey to El Yunque is divided into different modules, each focusing on a different species. Species studied include: the yagrumo tree, the tabonuco tree, the coquí frog, the anole lizard, the caterpillar, the mushroom, and the snail. Each module has a landing page that provides a visual representation of the investigative cycle of the module.

Module landing page showing the module’s investigative cycle

At the beginning of each module, students learn important information about one of the species through reading engaging texts written by Kathryn Robinson, an ecology author, and illustrated by Robert Casilla, a Puerto Rican children’s book illustrator. While reading, students take note of how different limiting factors affect the species’ population following a hurricane disturbance. These limiting factors include: food source, sources of mortality and habitat condition.

Later, students explore simulation models based on real-world data collected by ecologists that are actually working in El Yunque rainforest as part of the Luquillo Long-Term Ecological Research program (LUQ-LTER). Students use these models to explore how changes to limiting factors can affect the population of different species. Students change the settings for the different limiting factors and observe the resulting changes to the model output. After learning how each individual limiting factor affects the model output, students begin adjusting all limiting factors with the goal of creating model output that matches real-world data as closely as possible. 

Let’s take a closer look at the coquí, the beloved species of frog that sings its name!

You might imagine that in the aftermath of a hurricane, the coquí frog would experience a decrease in population. Indeed, this is the prediction made by most middle school students. However, in reality, the coquí frog experiences a veritable population explosion following hurricanes. Why does this happen? Hurricanes provide ideal conditions for coquí survival, by increasing the amount of deadwood and other debris present on the forest floor, which the coquí frogs use to shelter from predators. The fewer coquí are eaten by predators, the more coquí survive to reproduce.

From the readings, students learn that the availability of shelter is one of the limiting factors that controls the size of the coquí population. Students also learn that the plentiful debris that covers the forest floor after a hurricane provides ideal shelter for the coquí. The pictures below show the landing page for the coquí readings and a portion of one reading that discusses the relationship between hurricane debris and coquí survival.

Landing page for coquí readings
Portion of one reading that discusses the relationship between debris and coquí survival

When students first explore the simulation model, they can see that the coquí population grows when there is plentiful debris and shrinks as the debris decays. Later, students will find that high-debris model runs most closely approximate real-world post-hurricane data. In the images below, the green lines represent real-world data, and the blue lines represents a simulation model run where the hurricane debris parameter is set to either zero (top image) or a relatively high value (bottom image).  

Example of a simulation model run where debris parameter is set to zero
Example of a simulation model run where debris parameter is relatively high

The coquí is just one of many rainforest wildlife that students have the opportunity to explore in the Journey to El Yunque curriculum. Students also explore the yagrumo tree, the tabonuco tree, the anole lizard, the caterpillar, the mushroom, and the snail. 

As students learn how each organism population changes following a hurricane disturbance, they discover that the ecosystem of El Yunque is well adapted to hurricanes. Students also learn that we still need to understand the impact that increasingly frequent hurricanes and droughts will have on the species in the forest.

For more information about teaching with this curriculum, visit the website elyunque.net or contact us here.

References

McGee, S., Durik, A. M., and Zimmerman, J. K. (2015, April 11-14). The Impact of Text Genre on Science Learning in an Authentic Science Learning Environment [Paper presentation]. 2015 National Association of Research in Science Teaching Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL. https://doi.org/10.51420/conf.2015.2 


McGee, S., Durik, A.M., Zimmerman, J.K., McGee-Tekula, R., and Duck, J. (2018). Engaging Middle School Students in Authentic Scientific Practices Can Enhance Their Understanding of Ecosystem Response to Hurricane Disturbance. Forests 9(10): 658.  https://doi.org/10.3390/f9100658

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