Here in New Hampshire USA it is certainly wintertime. The sun does not rise until after 7 am and sets about 4 pm. On cloudy days, which do tend to predominate during this season, we look out on a palate of white and gray with a bit of dark green peeking out from hibernating conifers. A foot of snow fell the day before Thanksgiving and more than half the state lost electricity. Students would soon be coming back to school after the holiday and we needed an antidote for the inevitable upcoming winter blues!
A new trimester was about to begin and with it would come several challenges for my Climate Science class. Teaching a course which is all about the outdoor world, with winter temperatures expected to dive well below zero, was one of them. A greater challenge was how to bring the new group together into an effective learning team. Of the 16 students enrolled in the course, nine had been in the class during the fall trimester, and seven were going to be new. We needed an exercise to begin forming our new “Tribal Classroom,” a place where everyone feels a sense of belonging, a place where students are supporting one another in tackling the concepts we will be studying.
Thrashing around on the internet, looking for neat hands-on Climate Science type projects, I came across this from NASA. OK, it looks like fun! Taking some inspiration from Atul Gawande’s latest book “Being Mortal” in which he tells the story of the tremendously positive effects on the human psyche from bringing living things indoors, and also envisioning ways terrariums could be used as teaching tools, it was just a matter of gathering the ingredients.
As luck would have it, our weather here thawed out for several days before the Thanksgiving holiday, enough to collect mosses, lichens, other small forest floor plants and some acorns, all from the local forest. Some suitable containers were available at the pet store in town, potting soil and pebbles in the garage. By the time students arrived back at school all the pieces were ready!
Everything in this class this year is an experiment in curriculum design. I tell the kids this, and ask for their feedback. So far feedback on this little exercise is quite positive. One only has to see the smiles to know kids had a blast creating their own little worlds! They worked in pairs to make each terrarium, at a table with another pair, making a group of four. I am hoping these small groups will evolve into powerful learning teams as the term progresses!
Students brought in special objects to put in their terrariums, a toy panda, a small dinosaur, a figurine of a fawn. There was so much enthusiasm for this project that by the end each pair was very much emotionally invested in their terrarium. We hope that the acorns will germinate this winter, and that by spring time they will be ready to transplant out into the forest!
Meanwhile our terrariums will serve as a wonderful learning model. We will talk about the interconnectedness of all the living things in the terrarium, the bio-geochemical cycling of nutrients, and especially the all important carbon cycle which is the focus of our first unit. We will learn the equations for photosynthesis and cellular respiration, and how all the terrariums are dependent on the atmosphere for exchange of these key gases necessary to sustain life. Of course we can talk about the greenhouse effect too.
Perhaps most important of all is the metaphor of our terrariums, reflecting the small blue marble of planet Earth in the vastness of space, a lovely, fragile and precious place for us all to live!