Quest Forward Learning’s guiding principles inspire attentive and thoughtful consideration in the process of designing quests. An essential component in quest design is the formulation of experiences that provide relevant concepts and skills connecting students’ lives to the world around them. Another necessary aspect is how to provide built-in opportunities for initiating questions and seeking answers through practice and experimentation. One quest that exemplifies these qualities in particular is Ecosystem Components.
As a US Foundation Phase science quest, Ecosystem Components guides students through biotic and abiotic components in ecosystems. Its driving question asks, “What are biotic and abiotic factors, and how do they affect organisms?” Its quest goal asks students to design and perform an experiment in order to understand how biotic and abiotic factors affect ecosystems. Throughout the quest, they will ask questions, conduct experiments, seek answers, and apply what they’ve learned to a real-life situation (in this case, camping). In addition, students are given opportunities to consider how their peers have addressed similar challenges in different ways. All of these factors contribute to a broader understanding of the subject and its impact on the greater world.
Activity 1 asks students to plan a camping trip, and to hypothesize about what they might need to bring based on their chosen destination. While this activity could build upon pre-existing student knowledge (particularly for kids who have had experience camping), it actually encourages students to enter a mindset that demands analysis of the ecosystem they intend to visit. A campsite in the desert requires different gear than one in the mountains or along a beach, for example. When planning, students need to consider weather, terrain, and wildlife (among other things). Already they’re prompted to ask questions and consider how different environments could affect their experience.
Activity 2 builds on this preparatory activity, moving learners from their hypotheses into content specifics. The content serves two essential roles: 1) It allows students to analyze more precisely the interrelatedness of ecosystems, giving them a more sophisticated lens through which to view Activity 1, and 2) It expands on concepts essential to ecosystems that are necessary for later experimentation. Here students gain a foundational understanding of biotic and abiotic components in ecosystems. With this more nuanced and subject-specific content, students may better understand how their supply list falls short. Conversely, this activity may help crystallize concepts students otherwise intuited in Activity 1. Students record these discoveries in their notebooks, which provide them with information for the next activity.
The heart of the quest is Activity 3, where active experimentation begins. This is an opportunity for students to apply scientific protocol and develop skills that have applications to other situations, scientific and otherwise. Students put what they understand about biotic and abiotic components of ecosystems to the test. They plan a simple ecosystem (a jar of pond water, a terrarium, etc.), creating two identical models; one model will go untouched while the other is subjected to a biotic or abiotic factor of a student’s choosing. For a week, students measure the impact of their selected biotic or abiotic factor on their ecosystem, making a daily recording of any changes they observe and any differences they note between the two identical ecosystems. Though students are simply looking at biotic and abiotic variables, the process by which they experiment with these variables is what counts.
Activity 4 is the culmination of all that students have done over the course of the quest. It asks students to present their findings as the final artifact. Preparing a final presentation challenges students to scrutinize the experiment and to think about not only what they learned, but how they learned it. Students reflect on their experimental design based on the outcomes, and consider how the steps they’ve taken in this particular experiment might be applicable to other situations. To assist them with this reflection, the final activity offers a series of questions to consider when preparing their thoughts, including, “How did your chosen organism adapt to changes in its environment?” and “Why was it important to control other environmental variables as much as possible?” Activity 4 also links learners back to the earliest question of what camping supplies they would choose for a given location. Ultimately, students will understand how this experiment is similar to or different from that initial inquiry, and the depth of what they are able to discover in the steps between Activities 1 and 4.
Ecosystem Components underscores how quests provide flexibility and opportunity within the activities themselves, allowing mentors and students to build on the quest’s foundation and tailor their experiences to their varied needs and interests. For instance, students can expand the length of their experiments in order to gather more observations and data, or mentors can alter the format of the final artifact to have students focus on data recording and compiling formal lab reports. These are just some of the suggestions provided within the quest to highlight student interest and development. What students hopefully discover in a quest like Ecosystem Components is how scientific exploration has real-world implications, specifically, how experimental design might be used in both scientific problem-solving and in individual life challenges.