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Bottle Biology: The TerraAqua Column

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Sara Granovetter

"Bottle Biology: The TerrAqua Column" is a highly innovative, flexible, and economical activity book. Students re-create natural processes in a recycled 2-liter soda bottle, following both pre-designed experiments and creating their own. The book allows students a good deal of freedom, but gives enough guidance for their pursuits to be successful and educational. The book describes a real-world environmental issue connected to each activity, showing students that their work is important and has applications outside of the classroom. This book will also give you endless suggestions for how to extend activities or design additional experiments.

These activities are best for afterschool centers that have spacious classrooms, the capacity for storage, and at least 2-hour-long classes for students to really delve into the work. The activity may not be ideal for young children, unless teachers prepare many of the elements themselves. If you do use this book with younger students, leave plenty of time for cleanup!
Full Review:
Bottle Biology is an "idea book" for performing science experiments inside 2-liter soda bottles. As I browsed through its activities, I grew more and more excited about trying them out myself! The topics range from worm composting to fermenting the Korean dish kimchi to creating a miniecosystem. Each project includes background information, clear assembly instructions, one detailed science experiment, and lots of suggestions for creating original experiments and extending the activity. All you need are empty bottles and a few easy-to-find, inexpensive supplies. The book is flexible, with options for different age groups, local resources, and time frames. Bottle Biology is a wonderful resource for afterschool programs that have a bit of space, time, and the ability to store student work and materials. However, it may not be ideal for young children and does require extensive time for preparation and cleanup.

By building one project called the TerrAqua Column—a bottle that contains soil, plants, and water—students can observe environmental processes firsthand. Instead of listening to teachers lecture about pollution and environmental issues, students actually recreate these processes in a controlled environment. Through the clear bottle that houses the TerrAqua Column the students can observe cross sections of soil, water, leaves, plants, and insects, and can easily observe and record changes in the system.

Author Paul Williams says instructors can use Bottle Biology to "promote the idea that science is not a lengthy list of facts, but a tool for exploration." His activities are true to this philosophy. Through detailed and clear instructions, the book helps students design and implement their own experiments in the ecosystem they create. There is plenty of guidance describing the elements of a successful experiment. There is a good explanation of how a working scientist develops hypotheses, controls variables, and records data. Students do not have to follow instructions to the letter; they can actively investigate changes in their bottle habitats and observe the results.

In addition to giving students a hands-on, individualized science experience, Bottle Biology encourages cooperation, responsibility, and a personal investment in one's work. The book provides conversation starters, urging teachers to begin each experiment with a class discussion. It also suggests that students work in groups, and designates different roles for group members.

Students also develop a sense of how human activity can profoundly affect the surrounding environment. Many of the activities involve introducing pollutants, such as salt, into the bottle habitat. Students observe how a small amount of salt in the water negatively affects plant growth. This experiment is accompanied by a description of a real-life environmental issue: "Does salting roads in Massachusetts negatively affect surrounding plant growth?" This lets students see the connection between science and the real world. Instead of viewing the experiment as a game or diversion, they can begin to see the importance of their work, and to feel that they are real members of the scientific community.

Bottle Biology is clearly educational, —but is it fun? The answer is a resounding "Yes!" The activities are hands-on and let students feel like real scientists, designing their own experiments and becoming invested in their work. And in the end, students have marvelous creations to hang around the house, delicious kimchi to eat, or even pet bugs to observe.

The activities are fairly easy to lead, and include detailed instructions, complete with helpful diagrams and images. However, they do require some space, preparation, building materials, in-class labor, and cleanup to be successful. In the introduction, Williams suggests that teachers make their own bottle constructions before sharing the activities with students. This may not be practical for an afterschool program. In this case, teachers and students should work through problems together, which would require longer sessions.

For students to build and explore these columns in a leisurely manner, classes should be at least 2 hours long. This will allow time for construction, addressing potential problems, observation, recording of data, and cleanup. This may be a messy proposition for younger students, so your building must have the proper facilities (and plenty of paper towels and mops). In general, these activities may not be ideal for young children, unless teachers have time to prepare many of the elements themselves.

Overall, Bottle Biology is a good value. It makes use of reused materials (which are free and have less impact on the environment) and common items that you can buy at the local hardware store. Once you have these supplies, the possibilities are nearly endless. Each activity can be as structured or unstructured as the teacher likes, and depending on how much time he or she has to prepare. The book includes instructions for predesigned experiments and ideas for original ones. In addition, each activity has an "Extension" section, which includes supplemental activities and ideas for further exploration. This book could easily be used for more than a year of curriculum. A wonderful, creative book for the next generation of environmentally aware scientists!