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Things Fall Apart

By Kate Shapero

What happens when we die?  Spiritually, I have no idea.  But physically, we are a smorgasbord, a buffet, a literal all-you-can-eat feast for millions of organisms.  Decay is one big party where everyone stays to clean up until the place is spotless.

Science teachers tend to be a little enamored with processes like these.  Many of us are fascinated with change and riveted when we find the beauty of transformation in unlikely places.  I even came across an AP Biology teacher’s blog titled “All Roads Lead to Detritus.”  The idea that your current manifestation is temporary and will undergo dramatic reorganization can be comforting or terrifying, depending on your perspective towards change.

It also depends on your feelings about bugs. And worms.  And mold.  And even juvenile flies, a.k.a. maggots.  I’ll admit that sometimes the “beauty of transformation” smells pretty bad.  It can look even worse.  Because of this, I think that helping children connect these critters to the role they play in releasing nutrients and creating life is critical.  Understanding decomposition as an essential process can change seemingly unloveable creatures into the ecological rock stars that they are.  Or, at the very least, help you decide not to step on them.


How are ecological processes like decomposition explored at Miquon?


Searching for life:  Second and third grade students hunted for decomposers in decaying logs near the tree house.  After recording what they found, they were amazed at how many different critters were living in one location.  From our brief count, a few rotting logs provide habitat for over 18 different types of organisms.
These photos show a Bess Beetle, fungi, deer scat and mold.  


Understanding vocabulary:  Students used a set of K’NEX to repeatedly “compose” and “de-compose” simple structures during a class focused on terminology.


Experimenting in controlled conditions:  Second and third graders watch the growth of decomposers and the decay of various fruits.  Three fruits were placed in containers without soil and three with soil.  This prompts an interesting question about where decomposers live and how they “get into” the jar without soil.  

Thought experiments:  Students consider what Miquon would look like if there were no decomposers.  “There would be dead trees up to the sky!” “No, there wouldn’t be trees because the new baby trees couldn’t get any light because they’d have dead trees on them!”  “There would be deer and squirrels just laying out there.” 


Worm husbandry:  First graders observe composting worms, create bedding and collect worm castings (poop) to fertilize the seedlings they began growing a few weeks ago.  Nursery students meet the worms.



Observing to look for patterns:  Second and third grade students gently conducted experiments with our composting worms.  They examined preferences for wet or dry environments, touch reactivity and their ability to smell (or sense) things in their environment.  Individual student data was compiled so that we could look for larger patterns and understand more about how sample size relates to results.  


Connecting to larger implications:  As part of a tree study, fifth and sixth grade students learn about the Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive species that is leading to the death of Ash trees in the U.S.   They inspect Ash trees on Miquon’s campus for signs of Emerald Ash Borer damage (none yet-the holes in photos below are from maple sugaring and a bird called a sap sucker) and examine other trees for signs of decay.  (Photos taken by our students.)



Clarifying ideas through games:  Second and third grade students sorted organism cards under ecological descriptions (producer, herbivore, omnivore, carnivore, decomposer) and then drew connections between organisms to show how energy flows through a system.  There was a lot of testing and refining ideas about what happens to the energy stored in top predators.  Finally, decomposers came in to keep things flowing!


Reading great books:  Students really enjoyed reading Diary of a Worm before our investigations with composting worms.  They practiced examining images closely in Compost Critters, a fantastic book of magnified images created by a National Geographic photographer recording life in her own backyard.  


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