The Case of the San Joaquin Kit Fox: Connecting Classroom Science with the Real World

By Myra Pasquier

My name is Myra Pasquier and I am a middle school science teacher at Suva Intermediate School in Bell Gardens, California. Suva Intermediate is an urban school with Title I status and is a part of the Montebello Unified School District. Our student body is comprised of approximately 800 individuals. Thirty percent of our student population are English language learners and 89.6 percent of students receive free and reduced-price meals.

Suva Intermediate
Suva Intermediate School in Bell Gardens, CA

Like most school districts in California, ours is slowly transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and I recently had the opportunity to pilot an eighth grade learning sequence which was developed for the California NGSS statewide roll out.

Principle 1

This learning sequence used California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts (Environmental Principles) to help weave in local environmental issues that were relevant to my students.  The Environmental Principles consist of five big ideas that highlight the deep relationship between humans and the natural world. In fact, the new California science framework encourages educators to incorporate the Environmental Principles into their three-dimensional NGSS lessons because they are a great way to fuel student inquiry by using relevant, real world issues as the context for learning.

Although my students live most of their lives within the city and have very little exposure to nature or wildlife, this did not affect their ability to relate to and engage with the concepts presented in this unit of study. On the contrary, their urban backgrounds helped to highlight the idea that “nature” is not just faraway places untouched by humans; it is also in their own backyards!

Unit and Learning Sequence Overview

The unit of study focused on the concept that changes in the environment influence the distribution of traits in a population. The unit level phenomenon focused on a recently discovered large extinction event while at the lesson sequence level, students examined how human influence on genetic variation can determine the speed at which speciation can occur.

clipbird kids
Students engaged in the Clipbird Activity

The lesson progression started with students learning about Charles Darwin’s observation that several species of finches varied from island-to-island on the Galapagos Islands. Through the Clipbirds Activity, a spin on the classic bird beak activity that demonstrates competition in ecology, students explored how the availability of resources like food can shape the traits (e.g., beak size) passed on from one generation to the next, eventually reshaping the population. Students then analyzed data from the 2014 Grant study of the Daphne Major Island finch population to help solve the mystery of the finch population change. The lesson sequence then culminated in a role-playing scenario where students applied what they had learned about the relationship between the finches and their environment to a local species population whose habitat is under pressure from human activities.  This activity allowed the students to connect their growing understanding of natural systems to their daily lives as members of human communities, and provided a great opportunity for evaluation. Here’s how the role-playing scenario worked.

I tasked students with researching fox populations in California and their ability to thrive in their habitat. Students were then informed that an area of Central California, Paso Robles, was experiencing a housing shortage due to a population boom. A development company is proposing that Camp Roberts, a huge national guard training camp, be vacated in order to build new housing for local residents. However, the San Joaquin Kit Fox, an endangered species endemic to the area, would be affected by this project.

Students were placed into role playing groups to represent different members of the community (residents looking for housing, local scientists, realtors, Boy Scout troop, etc).  These groups would present their arguments for and against the proposed housing development to the “Governor’s Special Committee” at a fictional town hall meeting. Some students were assigned to be part of the Governor’s Special Committee, a group that would listen to the residents’ appeals for and against the development, and then make a recommendation to the governor on whether or not to proceed with the housing development.

Town Hall Meeting

Up until this point in our unit, students had not engaged in any activities that explored how human societies can influence natural systems, including the population of native animal species. The town hall activity gave students the opportunity to explore this idea while applying the knowledge they had learned previously about environmental factors’ effect on native species populations.

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The San Joaquin Kit Fox
Photo Credit: Carley Sweet, USFWS

Students now had to consider how activities which benefit human societies, in this case increased housing, could result in the demise of the kit fox population. I met with each group and we discussed how they were going to try to convince the Special Committee to adopt their recommendation.  The students took this responsibility very seriously and I was impressed with the professionalism with which they approached this task.  Even more surprising is that every group that was in favor of the development came up with possible solutions on how to protect the kit fox population. These solutions ranged from creating a sanctuary area within the community to protect the foxes’ habitat to allowing the foxes to run free and penalizing citizens if they purposely harmed the foxes.

The groups who were against the development were just as passionate in their opposition and did a thorough job of using what they had learned in previous lessons to argue for their point of view.

The four students who made up the Special Committee originally thought their job was going to be easy. After all, they did not have to prepare a statement like the other groups. However, they wound up having the hardest time making a decision. It took them almost two class periods to weigh the pros and cons of building the development and render a decision. They ultimately decided against the proposed housing development, resulting in a victory for those groups against the development.  However, I did notice that the groups supporting the development had wore small, secret, satisfied smiles upon hearing this decision and did not seem to mind being the “losers.”

Student Reflections – Understanding the Importance of Being Informed

I think it important to note that my eighth graders lived through the 2016 presidential election. They were exposed on a daily basis to the democratic process, but did not have a voice when it came to voting for president. I believe the town hall activity gave them the opportunity to have their voices heard. By providing them with this real-life scenario of how their decision can help or harm our environment, they realized the power they have as members of a community and the importance of being informed citizens:

 “It is important to participate in this type of activity so that we can help our community be safe and healthy.”

 “What this means to me as a future voting citizen is that now I know an opinion can change thing[s] for the better or for the worse.”,

“…I see that opinions are strong and it means that putting your opinion out there can just be enough to change the world.”

Lessons Learned

The town hall meeting activity provided my students the opportunity to apply their science knowledge to a real-life situation. I believe that this is a more thorough and a deeper way of assessing their conceptual understanding – it’s real life! Rather than memorizing and regurgitating a definition, or plugging in numbers into a formula and getting an answer, my students are using critical thinking skills in conjunction with their understanding of a scientific concept and applying it to a real world problem.  These are skills they will have to use when they are adults.

I will be the first to admit that planning and executing these types of lessons is incredibly challenging and time-consuming. However, after witnessing my students’ efforts and dedication to presenting their viewpoints, reading their reflection responses and realizing that they will remember this experience when they become voting citizens, I know that all the extra effort was worth it.  Moving forward I intend to incorporate as many of these real life scenarios into my teaching as possible.  Knowing that our students, tomorrow’s leaders, have the skills to make informed decisions about the health of our communities gives me hope for the future.

Myra Pasquier

About the Author: Myra Pasquier has taught middle school science for the past twenty years. She currently teaches at Suva Intermediate School in Bell Gardens, California and is an adjunct faculty member at California State University, Long Beach.

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