All posts by Paula Fogarty

Modern Grazing Practices: Who Knew Population Growth Curves Were So Useful?

A couple of years ago I visited  a young rancher who was using innovative practices to graze his cattle and nurture his land.  These included not only maintaining pastures of diverse grasses, but also moving the herd from place to place, more closely simulating the movements of the West’s great ruminant herds.  In this way, the land and its grasses were allowed to recover.

He gave us a tour, showing the different grasses, many of them native,  growing intermingled.  Inspection of a shovel full of soil showed a lot of organic matter was present.  At a molecular level, the grasses were sequestering carbon in great quantities.

Then he explained the moving of the herd to different grazing areas.  And the population growth curve played an essential role in this practice!  Who knew!  As the cattle eat the grasses down, the height soon reaches a point where most of the photosynthetic surface of the grass blades is gone, and the grass is in the lag phase of its growth.  When it has grown enough to have more area for photosynthesis, its growth takes off again, entering the exponential phase of the growth curve, and it quickly recovers.  So the secret lies in excluding the cattle from a grazing area just before the grass is short enough to be in the lag phase.  This way it will be in the exponential phase, growing quickly for the speediest recovery of height (biomass) and food for the cattle.

A very practical and efficient use of the growth curve!

Protein Rescue–Help Is on the Way!

A customer just purchased the Protein Package (consists of the Protein Synthesis Kit, the Macromolecules Kit, and the Enzymes Kit), and it got me thinking about why those kits, in combination, are so helpful for teaching about protein.

Speak Easies’ Protein Package:

  • Accesses “caveman learning”!
  • Overcomes lack of prior knowledge!
  • Shows why protein matters!


First:  we’re talking about “caveman learning” here– the most fundamental way of learning, using our hands and movement to explore and find out.  Watch a baby learn–it’s all about hands!  So Speak Easies kits are totally hands-on.  Students hold the pieces and assemble them into structures or move them to enact processes, helping them to understand, and muscle memory helps them remember the concepts involved.  This is especially valuable with the Protein Synthesis Kit, which allows students to enact the translation process.

Protein Synthesis Kit Being Used to Demonstrate Translation

Second:  for such concepts as macromolecules, monomers and polymers, students probably have no prior knowledge at all, so there’s nothing there to hook the concepts to.  That’s where brightly-colored simple shapes and the act of assembling them can help to engage the students and stick those ideas in their minds.  And seeing the simple shape and color of the amino acid monomers in the Macromolecules Kit repeated again in the Protein Synthesis Kit will help students comprehend and remember.

Amino Acid Symbols from Macromolecules Kit

Third:  understanding the basic structure of protein and how it’s assembled is just the beginning.  Students need to understand why protein is so important, and this is where the Enzymes Kit plays a role.  Of course many structures in an organism are made of protein, but all the chemical reactions inside a cell or organism are facilitated by protein in the form of enzymes, and without those enzymes reactions slow down enormously!  The Enzymes Kit helps students see how enzymes function, and the included background information lists some diseases and conditions that result from the absence of certain enzymes.

Images showing an enzyme, substrate, and products
An Enzyme at Work

And finally, using all three kits together reminds students that structure and function are bound together and they see that mistakes in structure can lead to problems with function.  Put the kits on your markerboard, challenge your students with provocative questions, and let them figure it out–the kits provide the clues to help them.

Purchase the Protein Package, consisting of these three kits:  Macromolecules, Protein Synthesis, and Enzymes, to give your students a highly effective learning experience about protein!  And to help cement that knowledge in place, we have Protein Synthesis Desk Kits for students to use working with a partner (discounts available for purchasing a class set).

Biology Models: The Great Blood Vessel Challenge–Hands-On Activity for Your Students

Materials needed for a reusable class set:
1 standard garden hose
1 soaker hose
1 discharge hose (find in pool supply stores)

This is an easy way to have students carefully consider the characteristics of blood vessels. To set it up, you will need three hoses (or lengths of hose) of three different types: a simple garden hose with fairly thick walls (red?), a soaker hose with mesh walls, and a discharge hose (blue?) such as is used to drain the water from swimming pools. The latter can be ordered from a pool supply company. It will flatten when not full of liquid.

Students use common hoses to model blood vessels

Directions:  Simply cut the hoses in lengths of 12 to 18 inches.  Each student or small group is then given one of each type of hose. They are asked to decide which best represents a capillary, vein, or artery. There is not one right answer, although some choices may seem more appropriate than others. Students must consider the properties of each type of blood vessel and make reasoned decisions regarding their choices, citing characteristics to back up their reasoning. It might be helpful to allow them to take the hoses to the sink and run water through them.

Background Information:

Arteries are thick-walled vessels that carry oxygenated blood on its journey away from the heart. (Exception: the pulmonary arteries also carry blood away from the heart, but it is deoxygenated blood on its way to the lungs where oxygen is added.) It is helpful to remember that arteries always carry blood away from the heart, Arteries Always Away. Arterial walls are composed of three tissue layers called the tunica interna, the innermost layer which includes the epithelial lining, tunica media in the middle, and tunica externa, the outer layer. The arterial walls contain more smooth muscle and elastic fibers than do the walls of the veins. This makes arterial walls thicker and more elastic, so they retain their circular shape in cross-section, even when emptied of blood on the commercially prepared slides your students may view. The walls are thicker than the walls of veins and more contractile. Blood pressure in the arteries is high and pulses as the heart beats. The greater elasticity of the walls allows them to spring back from pressure. Their greater contractility allows arteries to constrict or dilate to control blood flow to areas of the body. No valves are present.

Veins are vessels that carry deoxygenated blood on its return trip to the heart. (Exception: the pulmonary veins also carry blood back to the heart, but it is oxygenated blood returning to the heart from the lungs.) Veins are composed of three layers as are the arteries, but with less smooth muscle and elastic fibers. In a tissue sample such as those on commercially prepared slides, the emptied veins may collapse and flatten. Reduced connective tissue content in the venous walls allows the veins to lose their round shape readily when emptied. The blood in the veins is under lower pressure since it is farther removed from the pumping action of the heart. Since the blood pressure is lower and the journey through the veins is mostly against the pull of gravity, extra help comes in the form of valves present inside the veins. Contraction of skeletal muscles surrounding the veins also helps to push the blood back to the heart.

Capillaries are very thin-walled vessels with a very small diameter. Some are only 4 microns across. (Compare this to the diameter of the red blood cell: 8 microns!) They are the site of gas exchange and chemical exchange between the blood and the body’s cells. The capillary walls are only one cell thick, being composed simply of epithelium, and oxygen and carbon dioxide can pass through them readily. They make up for their small diameter by being extremely plentiful, existing in capillary beds in all tissues of the body except epithelial tissue.

Blood vessel illustration by National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health –, Public Domain,


Biology Models: Consider the Red Blood Cell

It was a pretty good lecture, as lectures go:  brief and to the point, with interesting subject matter– the red blood cell!  All other cells in the body depend on it to bring that life-giving substance, oxygen.  It’s tough and stream-lined to perform its function–zipping through the blood vessels with its payload, bumping into the vessel walls and other blood cells, stacking into rouleaux which reduce wear and tear.  Early on it loses its nucleus and organelles, including mitochondria, so it can transport oxygen with maximum efficiency, traveling by the bulk flow of the blood.  I described its width–8 microns–and the fact that it can fold to fit through capillaries that are only 4 microns in diameter.  A lovely little cell, admirable in every way!

And the next day the class remembered nothing!  I could almost believe we were viewing each other from alternate universes, with no sound and no meaning bridging the gap in between.  Over the summer I thought about it a lot, and finally I went shopping.  In a pet store I found a flexible rubber frisbee.  The fabric store yielded some stretchy red cotton knit and some batting to pad the edges.  Then I went home and sewed a red blood cell, a handsome bi-concave disc, flexible yet strong.

In time, I added to the one red blood cell: an ABO set plus a sickle cell.

In the new school year the day finally arrived when the lesson included blood cells.  This time I tossed the disc to a kid in the middle of the room, asking “What is this?”  They passed it around, looked at it, and came up with the answer.  “Why do you think so?”  “What characteristics do you notice?”  “How can this 8-micron-wide red blood cell fit through capillaries only 4 microns in diameter?”  “What could be the benefit of having no mitochondria?”  At this point I added five minutes worth of further information.  The next class meeting, the students could tell me a lot about red blood cells, without even checking their notes.  Over time that one red blood cell grew to a collection of four, with black and white buttons to represent blood type antigens, plus an appropriately shaped sickle cell.

My conclusion:  an object to hold in the hand, to observe, to bend, and even toss around the room, made quite a positive difference in kids’ receptiveness and retention!  Probably any teacher reading this has already reached this conclusion for her/himself, and I knew this too, even before the red blood cell epiphany.  However, after that I devised even more biology models, and I used them in a more determined and systematic way.  Using them in an introductory lecture, then having students explain key concepts using them, and finally, bringing them out for review prior to tests–this is a powerful strategy to enhance student understanding and recall.

So when and how could a teacher use manipulatives?

  1.   Introduce a topic:   Bring out your biology models to lead into a lecture.
    Question the students:  What do you observe?  What do you suppose it represents?  What is its function?  Comment on the surface area-to-volume ratio– is surface area increased by the way the object is shaped?  How would that affect its function?  How might it interact with what you studied before?
  2.  In your lecture:  Manipulate the biology model yourself as you discuss it.
  3.   Pose a mystery:  Hand out the model and have students examine it to find an answer.    Ex:  How does this red blood cell, 8 microns in diameter, pass through a capillary that’s only 4 microns wide?
  4.   Have students use the object to explain its function to the class.
  5.   For a powerful review:  Put your biology models out in stations with question cards for the students to use, answering  together as they move around the room.
  6. Comply with NGSS:  NGSS calls for use of models.  When there isn’t time for students to create their own, then bring out biology models you have made or purchased, and watch your students get engaged.


Six Cool Ideas to Help Teach, Learn, and Review

Are you seeking active learning strategies that will engage your students?  Do you want your students to have fun with life science?  Here are six great ideas, for teachers by teachers, for using our educational tools in teaching, learning, and review!

In Combination

Put several kits on the board at the same time and let the class figure out how they’re connected.  Different kit combinations that can be useful include:

  •  Macromolecules/Digestive and Respiratory/Enzymes (see the image below)
  •  Macromolecules/Enzymes/Protein Synthesis
  •  Cells/Cell Membrane/Photosynthesis
  •  Photosynthesis/Cellular Respiration
Pieces from several board kits are displayed at once to challenge the students. Change the enzyme name to lipase or amylase. Ask students to match the enzyme to its substrate and location.

Repeat to Remember

Leave a kit up for awhile so the kids can just handle the pieces and put them together over and over.  Handling and assembling the kits repeatedly can help students remember structures and understand processes in biology and life science.

Review/Use Stations to Engage Students

To review for a test, set up stations with our life science kits and have the kids work their way through the stations, assembling and explaining them to each other.  They’ll be more engaged in the review if it feels less like a lecture, and as they handle the pieces they will remember what they learned initially.  And you can also use our magnetic life science models as assessment tools in teaching life science and biology.

Emergent Properties Intro

The Levels of Organization Kit makes a particularly effective tool for student discovery and engagement.  Students will have some prior knowledge on this topic, and as they attempt to place the levels in order and match them to the pictures, those who are watching will be drawn in to help arrive at the correct sequence.  This makes a powerful introduction for a lecture on emergent properties and even for an overview of your course!

Not Enough Magnet-Receptive Board Space?

Improve your classroom setup with more board space!  Drop by a paint or hardware store and pick up magnetic paint.  This is water-based paint that is full of iron filings.  Two coats on a wall or cupboard doors will provide extra display space.  The paint can be given a top coat in a color of your choice.

The Coolest Idea of All!

Speak Easies kits save you time by helping to organize your lecture, by providing a quick review of your topic in the background information sheets (Board Kits), with suggestions for use, and with built-in activities in the Desk Kits.  Wouldn’t you like a little spare time?



Place-Based Learning: Restore a Watershed!

STRAW Student Restoring a Wetland
A smiling student hauls mulch for newly planted trees in a wetland restoration.   Photo courtesy of STRAW

When you’re looking for project-based learning that is rich and rewarding, having your class restore a creek or wetland can’t be beat!  Kids are out of doors, learning by doing, and benefiting their community and the environment.  Fresh air, physical exercise and teamwork make a powerful combination.  Plus at-risk students sometimes come alive at a restoration, experiencing the benefits of teamwork and performing real work that helps the environment.  Sometimes the unexpected happens:  the kids find a snake or lizard, tracks of a raccoon or even mountain lion scat!  One team dug up the champion of all root balls from an invasive Himalayan blackberry.  And once, working on a creek at a ranch,  the class was super excited as a calf was born in front of their eyes!

Elementary school students working together to restore a wetland
Students restoring a wetland–teams spread out to get the job done. Photo courtesy of STRAW

Many topics related to watersheds, creeks, and wetlands can be explored in the classroom, either before or after the restoration takes place.  You’ll find some suggestions at the end of this article.

But how do you get your class involved with a restoration of a creek or wetland?  Read on.

Of course, you can plan and carry out a restoration all on your own, though it’s a lot of work, and the expense for plants, tools, watering arrangements, etc. will certainly add up.  But here’s the valuable bit of information you should know:  there are many watershed groups around the country doing this kind of work.  Friends of the ___ River, Friends of the ___Bay, as well as other environmental NGO’s, local water agencies, and local departments of public works, may have restoration projects in the works or may be able to connect you with other groups that are involved.  And that could save you an enormous amount of work (and money), but still have your students restore a creek or wetland.

For the ten years since I retired from teaching biology,  I’ve worked with a watershed group north of San Francisco Bay called STRAW, Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed, a project of Point Blue Conservation Science.  My classes— biology, physical science, and environmental studies— worked with this group before I left  the classroom, so I knew what they were all about and went to work for them eagerly.  STRAW began 23 years ago and performed its 500th restoration in 2015, having coordinated restorations involving many thousands of students, K-12, and having restored over 30 miles of creek banks and acres and acres of wetlands.  STRAW also has our team of dedicated retired educators who take related lessons into the classrooms.  Having repeatedly seen students restore creeks and wetlands and the impact on students and teachers, I can’t think of a more powerful project to benefit everyone!

So what kinds of classroom lessons make a smooth fit with restoration and have rich educational value?  Here are just a few:  water quality and testing, native plants and animals, food webs and energy flow, rain gardens, water-borne disease, population studies and estimating numbers, identification and classification, carbon sequestration, and sustainable water policy.  Plus another big one: positive ways of dealing with climate change!  Read about climate smart restoration here.

And here you can read one teacher’s comments after she had her students restore a creek with STRAW.  

Creek Restoration: Tony Plants a Tree!

deskWe know that place-based learning can make a positive difference in kids’ lives.  For example, restoring creeks can restore kids.  At-risk kids, kids with gang affiliations, kids with low self-esteem:  all of these can benefit from accomplishing the restoration of a creek.  But sometimes it doesn’t lead to a complete turnaround…

There he was—the kid who was placed in my sheltered biology class to wait out the two weeks till he could be transferred to the continuation high school. Well-groomed and fastidious, doused with aftershave, he walked in and put his head down on the desk as soon as he was assigned a seat. And there his head remained day after day. He was absolutely determined not to do a thing. The day arrived when the class went to the creek bordering the school to work on a restoration, removing some invasive plants and planting native trees, shrubs and forbs. “Tony” asked to stay in the classroom, but I refused— after all, no one else would stay behind. So he came along as we walked down to the creek. Proper planting techniques were demonstrated and tools were distributed. The work began. I brought Tony a shovel and led him to a spot that needed a tree. He balked, I insisted. His clothes would get dirty, but “Not to worry—it’s not muddy.” His hands would blister and get dirty; “You’re in luck, Pal—here’s some work gloves.” And finally Tony went to work. The class was there for an hour and a half, and Tony planted three trees, with a little help from a couple of classmates. As we walked back to class he had a little swagger in his step and was more animated than I had ever seen him.

I wish I could report that Tony turned the corner that day, but no. He kept his head on the desk the few remaining days till he transferred out. Still, he planted three trees, trees that are growing there even now. And I don’t know what that might have meant to Tony. Maybe the experience had some positive value for him. It certainly had positive value for the creek!

And it had a lot of value for the rest of the class. The students were proud of their work and supportive of their team members. They made a positive difference for the environment, their school, and their community. More to come about restoration in our next posting.

Awesome Examples for Maintaining Homeostasis

Maintaining Homeostasis


Like so many topics teachers have to deal with, feedback loops seem pretty simple on the surface, but kids don’t come in with any understanding of what they are.

Possible pitfall:  feedback is either positive or negative, and when kids hear that, they think “good” or “bad”.  So it’s a good idea to address that right away.  Feedback  loops, both positive and negative, are composed of many processes that, in an organism, help maintain homeostasis.  But  positive feedback “steps on the gas”, enhancing or increasing a result, while negative feedback “steps on the brakes”, curtailing or redirecting a process.  Most feedback loops in the body  are the negative kind, acting to reverse a process that is upsetting equilibrium.  A good example is control of body temperature.  Other examples include control of blood sugar levels,  and control of water loss in urine.  As you describe one of these feedback examples, you might ask the students:  “Is this positive feedback or negative feedback?”

Further, you might say,  “If you are too cold, what would be the outcome of a positive feedback loop acting on your body temperature?”

A few feedback loops in the body are positive feedback.  These are in situations where a culminating event is desired.  An excellent example is the process of labor and delivery.  Describe the feedback factors at work, and ask students, “Why is positive feedback desirable here?”

We can also interpret some kinds of human interactions as examples of positive or negative feedback.  The courting process is one of those.

As we go up the levels of organization in biology, we can also see feedback at work , even on the level of biosphere.  For example, as global warming progresses, the permafrost in the tundra melts, releasing methane.  As methane levels rise, warming is increased.

Our last environmental example of feedback is one we see when water is polluted with excess nitrogen.  It is described by the graphic in this  student worksheet, and an answer key follows.

(If you find this article helpful, or if you have suggestions or questions, please let us know with a comment!  Thanks.)

Eutrophication, a Positive Feedback Loop–Student Worksheet

When the nitrate amount is high, eutrophication may happen.  In eutrophication, too much plant food (fertilizer) like nitrate gets into the water and makes too much algae grow.  Use  arrows on the picture below to show what can happen.

ScreenshoteutrophicationConclusion:  Write a paragraph telling what you think caused the fish die-off.  Be sure to use the word eutrophication, and explain why this is an example of a positive feedback loop.

Eutrophication Worksheet Answer Key


Waterborne Disease/ Poop Chronicles, Part Two

Waterborne Disease/ Poop Chronicles, Part Two


stopepidemicscreenshotThe cholera epidemic in London in 1854 was raging on, and Queen Victoria had called Dr. John Snow and commanded him to stop the epidemic.  But this seemed impossible, since no one at the time understood the germ theory of disease or how diseases spread.

Some strange ideas about how to avoid disease were floating around, as seen in this somewhat exaggerated newspaper cartoon.  We can all imagine how scary it must have been to be surrounded by an epidemic and not know how to protect yourself.screenshotstayinghealthy

But Dr. Snow did something unprecedented—he went into the area of the city where the epidemic was in progress, the neighborhoods around Broad Street, and he interviewed the survivors of the disease as well as the families of the deceased, to gather information about how the victims had lived, looking for clues.  [The students can be supplied with this map of London at the time.  Discuss with them the symbols on the map, being certain to discuss the pumps that were in use.  The picture at the end of this article may be helpful, since not many students have ever used such a pump, but if you show it before the class tries to figure out how to stop the epidemic, it’s a tip-off.]


[At this point, the class can be supplied with information about the victims, in addition to the map, and asked to figure out how to stop the epidemic.  This activity is from Project Wet, a wonderful resource for many water-related lessons, and can be found at  When students have figured out how to stop the disease and have discussed the additional question at the Rivanna Stormwater site, continue with the Poop Chronicles lecture.]

After figuring out that the disease was spread through the contaminated well water in the Broad Street pump, Dr. Snow told the authorities how to stop the epidemic:  “Remove the pump handle.”  Eventually the suggestion was carried out and the epidemic stopped.  It was found that “Patient 0”, the source of the disease, lived in a tenement house close to the Broad Street pump, and effluent from the tenement’s privy was leaking into the ground water and contaminating it.

Subsequently the Queen called in Sir Edwin Chadwick, who made some recommendations to improve the health of the people living in London.  He designed a house, intended for a single family to live in, which removed their pump at the greatest possible distance from their privy and also supplied more room as well as air circulation and natural light.

screenshotlondonsewersAnd eventually this plan was submitted to the Queen.  What does it show?  Sewer lines!  Even  so, when the sewers were put in, they simply drained the sewage to the river.  Sewage treatment plants did not come about till later.



[A good extension of this activity would be to investigate some other waterborne diseases (for example, polio virus, giardia, Salmonella typhus),  along with a few other contagious diseases.  Students could be given pictures of the pathogens that cause the diseases and asked to investigate the symptoms, causes and cures, in addition to prevention.  The students could also be given a picture of the body showing different organs and asked to match the pathogens to the organs they infect.  And finally, they could sort the pathogens according to which taxonomic kingdom each belongs to.

To emphasize the environmental aspects of waterborne disease, you might show students the form below, which shows a data table for a number of tests that, taken together, comprise a water quality index.  Note that one of the tests checks for the presence of coliform bacteria, a family of bacteria always found in sewage.]screenshotWQI