Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Vernal Pool Student Projects

Vernal Pool Student Projects

Concord Middle School Students worked in teams to create slide presentations about Vernal Pools as an enrichment activity related to their Schoolyard Ecology Vernal Pool project.

Teacher Tara Fernandez-Davila set the students the task of developing pages with a graph, an intro. to vernal pools, and one question of interest, using  See samples of their work below. Comments from Project Ecologist, Betsy Colburn and Tara F.D. are interspersed with slides. 

Notes from teacher, Tara Fernandez-Davila: 

  • Students visited the vernal pool 5 times (typically) over the course of the year
  • Students spent just over a week in the spring working in groups to develop the slides.  The slides include:
  • An overview of vernal pools
  •  A graph of the data we collected from 2011-2015 (I'd like next years' students to analyze these graphs more)
  •   A food web (developed by students using vernal pool field guides)
  •   A personal question of interest.  Their questions varied a lot from research-based questions to inferential questions that require long-term study.   Time constraints made it difficult for my students to spend more time in one school year, but I'm excited to have these slides as a base for future students.  

Note from Pamela Snow, Schoolyard Ecology Coordinator:

Ecologist Betsy Colburn and I discussed the fact that the food webs are trickier than one might expect because there are so many species involved and many of the species overlap multiple times in their food chain connections.  I believe it is still a worthwhile exercise as long as you make it clear to students that none of the food webs they created are totally complete or specific to the pool  you are studying as each vernal pool community would vary somewhat.  I like including this aspect in order to have students look closely at the complex way in which organisms are interrelated. Next time, students may perhaps add a note at the bottom of each food web/chain slide indicating that this diagram does not represent every organism or every interrelationship in this vernal pool community (which of course is all we can expect at this level). 

Sample Graph Slides: 

The graphs in figures 1 and 2 make a nice contrast-same set of data, very different looking results! Great examples for comparisons. 
Betsy Colburn
Project Ecologist

Comparing the graph in figure 3 with those in figures 1 and 2 above, shows how scaling on the X axis makes an enormous difference in the result! 
Betsy Colburn
Project Ecologist

This graph is nice in that it shows diameter on each date clearly, and also somewhat gets around the time-scaling problem by showing each year individually with distinct colors for the months. 
Betsy Colburn
Project Ecologist

Notes from Project Ecologist Betsy Colburn regarding graphs:

They (graphs) show very clearly how variable the pool diameter and water depths are over time in a given year, as well as how they differ from one year to the next.  Students could put a few words on the slide explaining what the graph shows (for example, do you consider that the pool depth is pretty stable, or pretty variable, during the time when it is flooded?) In relation to the line graphs, it is interesting that the patterns are not the same in the different graphs of pool diameters over the years, even though (presumably) the students used the same set of data.  And, the question of the scale used on the X axis makes a big difference. Depending on how the data are put in and  how the computer chooses to make the graph, the distances between points on the graph might not represent the relative distances in time between the sampling dates.  There are lots of things that can be done with looking at these graphs and comparing and interpreting them!  

Note from Pamela Snow:

Graphing a real data set is complex and challenging work for middle schoolers and we are very pleased to see such an array of approaches to this task.  Isn't fascinating to see how each group of students approached the work so differently?  In talking with Betsy Colburn, we decided that these graphs provide an exciting learning opportunity.  We have chosen not to provide specific corrections/edits to any of the graphs here, but instead encourage teachers to  encourage a class/group discussions between students and teachers, to see if issues re: accuracy or the ways in which types of  graphs or the way they have been displayed might enhance or take away from the ability to effectively interpret the data.  Having this set of graphs available for the entire class to look at perhaps next year, and think about which one(s) they think most effectively tell the story of what was happening with water levels/diameters at this pool is a wonderful teaching resource.  I could imagine some rich discussions and learning coming from this. I agree with Betsy's recommendation to add a short description of what students think the graph is showing next year. 

Some broad issues to consider as represented in the set of graphs above and in the larger collection on our website:

  • Are the axes labelled?
  • Is the reader able to clearly see the information in the graph?  We saw issues with the axes here. Many of the dates on the x axis on these slides appeared too small to read even when expanded to maximum size the blog would allow.  
  • Look at the scale of the time axis to see if it properly reflects the time between observations. 
  • If choosing a line graph, remember to remove the lines connecting long time periods such as the winter. Lines in areas where data was not actually recorded can show relationships between data points that don't actually exist.  
  • Often bar graphs are a better choice for data sets such as this one that have long stretches of time (between Nov. and May) with no data.  
  • Graph type such as a pie graph would not make sense given the particular story about water depth and diameter students are telling with this study.

After Slides were Completed: 

I had my students do a peer review of the slides today to gather information from each other.  It has been a great process so far, but as a first attempt, I hope Betsy will understand the simplicity of their analysis.   I think these slides will serve as a great starting point for students to study next year because now they will have some resources to launch from for further/ deeper investigation.  Exciting!
-Tara Fernandez-Davila

General Comments From Betsy Colburn on Student Work:  

Tara, I am impressed by the multiple years of data and the results of the measurements, as well as the broad scope of the biological/ecological investigations you have your students carrying out. It is clear that the students are deeply engaged in these studies, and I hope you are finding them useful in meeting some of your goals as an educator. Do you find that having several years’ worth of data on water depths and pool diameters helps you and your students in interpreting what you see going on, biologically, in the pools? It will be interesting if, as you suggest, next year’s class looks more at the data and the year-to-year (and within year) variations in depths and diameters!

I enjoyed going through the slide shows the students prepared. Most of these slides are well laid out and easy to read, with good, clear text. Most of the photographs do a very good job of accompanying and illustrating the written information. 

Some of the slides would benefit from having the sources of information cited on them; others do have the sources right there. I think this is preferable to having the sources cited at the end of the slides, in the case of scientific/biological information. On the other hand, the description by Aaron, Adam, Josh and Garrett in the last slide of their slideshow, summarizing how they obtained their data (primarily from field work at the vernal pool), was useful for clarifying that their reports were largely self-generated, as opposed to having come from online research.

I enjoyed seeing what the students observed, and learning how they interpreted their field measurements. Great slide show! Thanks, Betsy

Wow!  What rich learning you students and teachers  are sharing with us. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for letting us get a peek at your good work!

To Learn More: 

  • See ALL of the Slides developed by Concord Middle School students on our website atthe link below. Scroll down to the vernal pool section under "Fernandez-Davila": 

If any other teachers have student work, photos, comments to share send them along to me at


  1. Wow, really cool!!
    - Clarisse Hart

  2. "AWESOME-- Good Job Tara. Isn't it amazing what kids can do when we ask them to rise to the occasion!"

    Mrs Lise LeTellier
    Science Department Chair
    Holyoke Catholic High School