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In the four days of the Winter Meeting, SCIMAST staff presented several activities to frame the participants' field experiences. The following summaries show how a few of these activities could be reworked for students of all ages. They could be used to introduce students to the field work or to help them sum up their observations.

Since the participants in the Winter Meeting have been coming together twice a year for at least three years, they know each other well. Even so, they had not constructed a common understanding of the material to be studied. The first task SCIMAST staff faced was to offer ways to help the participants build shared assumptions about systems.

Describing a System

In the Winter Meeting. In small groups of three or four, the participants were given envelopes with the names of the general parts of a system (input, output, feedback mechanisms, components, subsystems) and the name of a specific system (circulation, transportation, legislative, school, hospital, McDonalds). The task for each small group then was to show how the specific system they received illustrated the general parts common to all systems.

The participants described the system they received on chart paper and then discussed it among the groups. At the end of the discussion each participant wrote an operational definition of a system. This definition was to be refined throughout the four days. In discussions the definitions were referred to and reworked until the last day.

In the Classroom. Even young students can recognize some parts of a system, although they may not have the vocabulary to name or describe those parts. Concepts introduced in class may need to be discussed again so students can rethink their understanding of systems. This activity may help students who have already been introduced to the concepts to think more deeply about them in relation to systems and the natural world.

Most students will need names of familiar systems. While it may stretch the thinking of adults and older students to discuss legislative and respiratory systems together, younger students may be confused if the teacher has not explained earlier how the systems resemble each other. In some cases the teacher may need to be very explicit in eliciting the similarities among the systems and helping children think about their commonalties.

Building a Bird

Picture of a seagullMarine Science Institute staff introduced the PDAs to the characteristics of the barrier island ecosystem and its resident species through maps, slides, and general descriptions. The participants then began to work on constructing models of birds that were adapted to the conditions found in various parts of the Port Aransas system. Long-legged birds that walk along the shoreline eating small creatures could be constructed from straws and Styrofoam bodies. Beaks could be fashioned from macaroni shells. Other items available in the array of materials--feathers, construction paper, beads, sequins, and any other items that appealed to their interests--could be used to form the entire bird.

The exercise gave participants an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of how creatures' physical adaptations conform to environmental needs. Discussions, not only with the whole group but also during the creation of the models, showed shared depth of understanding. Participants worked out how structure and function were related in birds' anatomy and indicated that they knew, for example, that wading birds would need long legs and that the shape of its bill governs what a bird eats. Using these understandings they built workable models of, often fanciful, birds.

In the classroom. Students may be tempted to focus on the inventiveness of their creations, but conversations will reveal the quality of their thinking about habitat and adaptation. Moving from group to group while students are constructing their birds will help the teacher understand their thinking. Students can also explain their constructions to the whole group in presentations that become, in essence, performance assessments.

Picture of a several artificially constructed birds

The Town Meeting Simulation

Based on an activity developed by Project Wild (see "To Zone or not to Zone" in the second edition of Project Wild: K-12 Activity Guide; available from Project Wild at 707 Conservation Lane, Suite 305, Gaithersburg, MD 20878), the Town Meeting simulation gave participants an opportunity to reflect on their observations and apply them in a realistic context. Participants would see that changing part of a system affects not only that system but also other systems and their interconnections. The exercise also made clear that all systems, both those created by humans and by nature, are interconnected. The simulation can be reworked for almost any age group. The role-playing aspects make it equally interesting for adults and younger children.

A simulation such as this one could be the culmination of many different field trips. Students could debate planned changes in roads around a site, proposals to make an area into a park or to remove it from the park system, the creation of a nature preserve, delisting an animal or plant as an endangered species, or similar subjects connected with their field experience. Ways to adjust this simulation for school use will be discussed alongside descriptions of how it played out in the Winter Meeting rather than separately.

Introducing the Issues
Periodically, people in this part of Texas suggest that a channel should be reopened to connect Corpus Christi Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Tourism businesses, fishing enthusiasts, and real estate interests support creating a channel. Many ecologists oppose the channel, as do those who worry about safety during a big hurricane, fiscal conservatives and taxpayer groups, and tourism business-people in smaller towns who fear that a channel would draw visitors to Corpus Christi and away from them.

While this activity may appear to be best suited to older students, it can be altered for children of all ages. As part of their introduction to the field experience, older students could identify and research the political, economic, and social issues of the site. The time devoted to research and presentation, the level of sophistication of the arguments, and the depth of detail presented will all be functions of the students' ages. Age-appropriate introductions will help young students deal with complex issues within this context. Children could use a simulation as an introduction to the topic rather than a summing up. A short simulation with different parts for each child might usefully introduce youngsters to broader concepts involved in their field trip.

Preparing to Debate
For the Town Meeting simulation, SCIMAST staff prepared extensive descriptions of the issues connected with the proposed Packery Channel and developed a stable of personalities to argue for each side. Supporters and opponents of the channel were more or less even in number. Participants were to argue before a mock city council made up of other participants.

Each participant was randomly assigned a character in the controversy as part of the information packet. If students develop their own materials, they may want to develop their own characters. Alternatively, the teacher may expect them, like debate team members, to be able to support any point of view.

Some participants were cast as members of the city council, one as the mayor who presided over the meeting. In a classroom, these roles could be randomly assigned like the others or could be voted on from the class. After the role players have presented all sides of the controversy, the city council members and mayor vote on the project.

In the SCIMAST simulation participants were given 15 minutes to read their information on the channel controversy and 15 minutes to caucus in "for" and "against" groups. Students, of course, could take much longer working to find their own information and forming advocacy groups within the class. Preparing information on all sides of issues could be part of their pre-visit work or could be an assignment when they return to class from the field.

Even with very little time to prepare, the participants presented various positions fairly by drawing on what they had learned in the previous days. In a school, cooperation with the civics teacher or debate coach at this stage could make the field experience interdisciplinary.

Simulation as an Assessment
The simulation is an opportunity for student reflection. As individuals and in their groups they need to rethink what they have learned and what meaning it has for them. If it is presented after the field trip, the simulation can also be an assess-ment. As an assessment, it allows each student to display his or her learning from the field and understanding of the broader social and political issues connected with the environment. Students should be aware of what will be expected of them both before and during the field experience so they can be gathering their thoughts in an organized manner with the simulation as a goal.

The complexity of this activity can deepen for older students. Students may chose to present position papers and oral arguments as part of the simulation and as part of the assessment of their learning. Each student could prepare a portfolio of his or her own position paper and the research that lead up to it, observations made at the site, prepatory work that lead up to the field trip, or other evidence of learning. The final vote could also be included in all portfolios along with individual discussions of those results.


After the simulation was over, SCIMAST presented the participants with several prompts for discussion and reflection:

  • How much of the debate on the Packery Channel actually focused on environmental issues?

  • What role did economics and politics play in the debate?

  • How can people learn to balance conflicting principles?

  • How can we educate students to make good decisions in these types of situations?

  • What happens when you have conflicting scientific data? How do you decide whom to believe? How do you establish priorities?

In a classroom setting these questions could become the basis of essays or classroom debates. One or more could form the core of an assessment protocol, perhaps as questions the teacher could use to organize feedback to the students.

Copies of the original town meeting activity are available. These copies are more extensive than the presentation here and include supporting materials developed by the SCIMAST staff. If you would like a copy, please contact a SCIMAST staff member or write to

    Classroom Compass
    Southwest Educational Development Laboratory,
    211 E. Seventh St.
    Austin, TX 78701-3253
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