Educator Spotlight: Discovering Biodiversity Close to Home

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Judy Joung, this week’s Educator of the Week, teaches 9th-grade biology at Schurz High School in Chicago. She took students on a field trip to a state park, where they completed a modified BioBlitz and shared their findings using iNaturalist. A BioBlitz is an event that brings together community members to find and identify as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time.

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Judy Joung, shown in Landmannalauger, Iceland, is a 9th-grade biology teacher at Schurz High School in Chicago. Photo by Mircea Arsenie

For your Nat Geo Educator Certification capstone, students visited a state park and completed a modified BioBlitz, identifying as many plant species as they could in a specific area of the park. How did the opportunity for the field trip come about, and how did you choose this activity for your visit?

My colleague Mircea Arsenie, an environmental science teacher, and I applied for a biodiversity grant that gave us funding for the field trip. At my school, it can be hard for us to find the money for field trips. This was a nice opportunity to travel out of the city and enjoy nature. We chose Matthiessen State Park since it is rich in different species and provides a quiet environment for students to work.

The modified BioBlitz gave students an opportunity to start looking closely at the different species of organisms around them. They worked in pairs, wearing gloves, to collect samples of plant species over our two-hour visit. When we returned to the classroom, students used the apps Picture This and Garden Answers to identify and separate their plant species samples. They started by working with one partner and then gradually joined other groups, eventually coming together as a whole class to compare their observations.

How did students react to the park visit?

Most of my students had never been to Matthiessen State Park, and some didn’t even know there was a place like that in their home state of Illinois. It was great to see them discover this place where they can go and enjoy nature and get out of the city noise. It was refreshing for them. My students shared that they liked being outside of the classroom and learning with real-life species.

Seeing their reactions made me happy as well. As a biology teacher, I want them to interact with all the things in their environment and realize that all of this science is happening right here in front of us.

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Students look for different plant species at Matthiessen State Park. Photo by Judy Joung

What was most surprising to you about the project?

I was surprised by how many species we ended up collecting in such a small area of Matthiessen State Park. It came to 19 different plant species. It was amazing to me and the students. We uploaded our photos and results to iNaturalist and compared those plant species to the plant biodiversity in the city of Chicago. Students saw that even within their own state, there were different species of plants growing in different locations.

Some students became curious about other parts of the U.S. and the world, especially areas where they had family, and they used the iNaturalist website on their own to explore. It was nice to see them taking charge of iNaturalist to further their knowledge of the different species out there, including plants and even animals.

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Students identify the plants collected from Matthiessen State Park. Photo by Judy Joung

Do you have any strategies for creating situations like that, where students take charge of their learning and want to explore further? 

We look at a lot of real life situations, and I have them investigate ideas on their own. For example, we’re about to learn about osmosis, and I plan on raising questions like why fingers become wrinkled when they’re in water, or why grocery stores spray water on vegetables. I try to do that as much as I can, but I always feel like I can do more to help students make these connections. I just hope that students grow their own passion and curiosity, so that they follow their little curiosities, learn more, and grow their own knowledge about everything. That’s my goal as a teacher.

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The class works together to compare collected plants and identify the total number of different species. Photo by Judy Joung


This interview has been edited and condensed.

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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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