Simulate a Dive into the Kelp Forest: Food Web Lesson

A simulated dive engages your students in exploring the California kelp forest!

A food web lesson for a generic ecosystem will give your students the basics, but it’s hard to beat exploring a specific ecosystem, one that’s alien for most students. This downloadable lesson from Speak Easies, the Kelp Forest, will give them pictures of nineteen kelp forest organisms plus four pieces of kelp. Using the key with feeding information and fun facts about the organisms, students can assemble a complex food web and learn about energy flow, plus a little oceanography. Upwelling is discussed briefly in the student reading sheet and in more depth in the teacher background. The dive simulation in the student reading instantly gets their attention.

This is an engaging lesson for a sub day, but it’s also a good one when you need a little break! What’s needed? Just the print-outs, scissors, glue sticks, plus notebooks or larger pieces of paper for pasting in their final food webs.

Shovel Ready–Preparing Students for Outdoor Work

If you take your students outside to plant in the school garden or restore habitat, you know that it can be very beneficial for kids. Even the problem kid might excel at this work! But you also know that, just as when you go to the lab, it takes some preparation to ensure a safe, successful experience. Speak Easies has designed some cartoon worksheets that can make this potentially boring topic fun. Besides the one pictured here, there is “Name That Tool” and “Don’t Forget Your Tick Check”. These are available now on our website,, and also on Teachers Pay Teachers at Speak Easies Active Learning Tools for Biology, under the title “Shovel-Ready!”

What else can help make the outdoor work rewarding? Remind kids about wearing old clothes, in layers, getting a good night’s sleep the night before, and eating a hearty breakfast. Shoes can be an issue; they should be sturdy, with closed toes, and older shoes are preferable. Students should also bring drinking water and a snack if these are not provided. Also helpful to show them: “Before” and “After” pictures of habitat or the school garden.

Working in small groups can also help to make the job more fun!

The DIY Carbon Cycle and The Trouble with Methane

Methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are both Greenhouse Gases, but methane holds in 25 times as much heat as carbon dioxide, so clearly we have to address methane emissions if we can hope to curb climate change!  That means dealing with food waste, cattle production, and fracking–all of which release methane.  In landfills, rotting organic materials that are buried with no exposure to air are producing methane too.  In many places that methane is tapped and burned to provide energy for the needs of the landfill facility.  Of course carbon dioxide results from the burning, but that is preferable to allowing the methane to seep into the atmosphere.

Speak Easies has a hands-on Downloadable Do-It-Yourself Carbon Cycle with engaging pictures that students can assemble to understand the processes and problems involved and to consider solutions!  Available now on this website, but it can also be purchased at Speak Easies Active Learning Tools for Biology on TeachersPayTeachers.

Hands-on kit to help students understand the carbon cycle and climate change

Dive into the Kelp Forest–Food Web Fun!

Kelp Frond

Are you tired of lessons on food webs and energy flow that focus on generic forest systems, some desert somewhere, or a tropical rain forest? Speak Easies’ Kelp Forest Downloadable Kit is a great way for your students to simulate a dive off of California’s coast and become familiar with some fun facts about the fascinating creatures that live in the kelp!

Did you know the California sheephead fish  changes from female to male at about age seven?  Are you aware that the purple-ringed topshell, a tiny snail 1 1/2 inches tall, is a fierce predator that rears up and lunges at its prey?

Purple-ringed Topshell

Your students will discover these facts and more as they assemble a food web from the kit’s hands-on pieces.  They’ll also learn about the upwelling that supports such rich diversity and the conditions that make a dive challenging in this area.  And using the language of uncertainty, they’ll speculate about the functions of the different parts of the kelp frond.

This is a great lesson for a sub day or when you need a break while your students are engaged.   Available here on our website and in our store, Speak Easies Active Learning Tools for Biology, on TeachersPayTeachers right now!

California Sheephead

Quick and Easy Carbon Cycle Lesson

Are you looking for a quick and easy carbon cycle lesson, one that will tie in climate change and Greenhouse Effect? It would be a plus if it’s engaging too, right? Well, here’s one you can download and give your students to cut out and assemble. The pictures are interesting to look at, and enough clues are built in that you can even use this as a way to introduce the topic. It’s one of Speak Easies’ new Downloadable Kits, available here on our website  and also on our store, Speak Easies Active Learning Tools for Biology at www.TeachersPayTeachers right now! It’s called the DIY Carbon Cycle. It’s highly effective as a learning tool, because it relies on the kinesthetic mode– it’s hands-on. As kids assemble the cycle, they draw on prior knowledge, educated guesses, and the included backstories for the pictures to put it together.

Excerpt from Key to the Pictures in the    DIY Carbon Cycle Downloadable Kit

So what is included in the kit? Two pages of engaging pictures to cut out, a two-page key to the pictures, giving the backstory for each, two pages of pro tips for you with suggestions for using the kit to teach the topic, a page of questions to discuss, and an answer key, including a picture of the assembled carbon cycle. These are the topics the pictures address: photosynthesis and cellular respiration, combustion and burning of fossil fuels, decomposition, fossil fuel formation and extraction, carbon sequestration, soil as a reservoir for carbon, role of native grasses in sequestration, greenhouse gases–both carbon dioxide and methane emissions and their impacts. And of course, as students work with the pieces they will see the ways to reduce impacts and trap carbon away from the atmosphere.

Carbon Cycle Assembled from Pictures in the Kit

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 away from the heart. (Exception: the pulmonary arteries carry deoxygenated blood on its way to the lungs.) 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. No valves are present.

Veins are vessels that carry deoxygenated blood on its return trip to the heart. (Exception: the pulmonary veins carry oxygenated blood returning to the heart.) In a tissue sample such as those on commercially prepared slides, the emptied veins may collapse and flatten. Valves are present inside the veins. Contraction of the surrounding skeletal muscles 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 exist 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.