Educator Spotlight: The Tower of Life

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Katie Strong, this week’s Educator of the Week, invented a fun game to teach about the amazing biodiversity and interconnected nature of ecosystems. Katie is the Assistant to the Director at All One Ocean, a nonprofit with the mission of increasing youth and community awareness of the impacts that marine debris have on ocean ecosystems, marine life and human health, and to encourage environmental stewardship by supporting community-driven solutions to reduce single-use plastics and other waste.

Activity: Tower of Life

Grade Level: 3-10

Time Commitment: Until the tower falls!

Three Hawaiian students play Tower of Life while another watches during the 2015 BioBlitz festival. Photo by Katie Strong.

What is Tower of Life?
Tower of Life is a fun-filled educational game that incorporates aspects of the popular building-block game Jenga. Tower of Life is about balance. How long can you keep the tower (and the marine ecosystem it represents) intact?

Emily Garland and I invented the game for the Biodiversity University segment of the 2015 BioBlitz festival, a 24-hour citizen science event at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, sponsored by National Geographic and the National Park Service. Tower of Life was a smash hit, educating and entertaining more than 425 youth and 75 adults, and receiving a wealth of compliments from scientists, educators, students and the general public.

You can adapt the game to your local ecosystem—a desert, prairie, river, or even an urban park! Just consider the ecosystem and how it is impacted (positively and negatively) by human activity.

For detailed instructions, please read the downloadable PDF here.

The largest specimen of the leatherback sea turtle (reptile) (this one is swimming off the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean) reached almost 7 feet! Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic
Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic

Materials Needed

  • 54 small wooden blocks. Jenga blocks work great! Of the 54 total blocks, 36 are blank and 18 are painted one of six different colors, each color representing a local species.
  • A spinner divided into six equal sections, each section picturing a local species (the same six species that appear on the color-coded blocks).
  • A deck of “event cards,” each containing a message that represents a good or bad ecological event that could happen to one of the six species. Each event card provides instructions for constructing (or destructing!) the tower. In our version using the marine ecosystem of Hawaii, event cards include:
    • [Species] has become extinct. Remove all [species] blocks from the tower.
    • A [species] has eaten plastic and died. Remove one [species] block from the tower.
    • A local middle school cleans the beach. Hooray! They saved some [species]. Do not remove any blocks.
The Hawaiian edition of the Tower of Life spinner. Photo by Veniece Corpuz, courtesy Katie Strong.

How To Play
You’ll need to set up the Tower of Life before you start playing. Instructions are here.

Once your tower is set up, the game has four main actions: spinning the wheel, reading the selected card, removing blocks from the tower, and placing blocks on top of the tower.

The first player spins the wheel and picks a card. The player then reads the card out loud, filling in the blank [species] space on the card with the name of the creature the spinner lands on. The player then follows the directions on the selected card and adjusts the tower’s blocks accordingly. Players take turns until the tower falls!

For detailed instructions, click here.

A group of youth reads a card together at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park . Photo by Karen Lee, courtesy Katie Strong.

How does Tower of Life impact students?
Tower of Life teaches students about the amazing biodiversity of regional marine ecosystems—the game’s species can be modified for any region—and the interconnected nature of these systems. The game also teaches students about the dangers of plastic, pollution and overfishing, as well as small steps each of us can take to protect marine life.

Tower of Life demonstrates how marine creatures rely on each other to maintain the balance of a healthy ecosystem. The stability of the system depends on each species. If one or more of a species’ blocks are removed from the tower, the tower may fall. This is the same for marine ecosystems—if one or more species are removed from the environment, the ecosystem suffers.

blue nominateDo you know a great educator who teaches about our world? Nominate a colleague or yourself as the next Educator of the Week!

The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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