Educator Spotlight: Examining the Impact of Keystone Species

Wendy Threatt’s fourth-grade class learned about keystone species extinction by conducting research, hosting a guest speaker, and watching a video about a wildlife photographer. Students demonstrated their learning by creating keystone arches to identify connections between animals in an ecosystem.

Wendy Threatt is a fourth-grade teacher at Reidy Creek Elementary in Escondido, California. Photo by Chris Threatt

Could you give an overview of your National Geographic Educator Certification capstone project?

I began the project by presenting my class with a question: What would happen to ecosystems if keystone species became extinct? Then, I had a conservationist from the nonprofit WILDCOAST come to our class to talk about our local species in the San Diego area. After that, students chose and researched a keystone species. Also, as part of the project, students learned about National Geographic Fellow Joel Sartore‘s work creating a Photo Ark by taking portraits of every species in the world.

For the project’s culminating activity, students created keystone arches. A keystone arch is a pictorial representation of the connections between animals in an ecosystem.  The “keystone” is the top stone in the arch, and if that stone is removed the entire arch falls. Students collaborated in small groups to study which animals were connected to the keystone animal within the ecosystem. When students drew the arch, they realized the keystone animal is crucial to the survival of many others.

After researching keystone animals, students created keystone arches to represent the animals within the ecosystem and their relationships to each other. Photo by Wendy Threatt

How did this project impact students?

Student gained an understanding of how humans have negatively affected ecosystems and have also reversed some of those impacts. While we were discussing how the wolf population was once obliterated in Yellowstone National Park, one of my students had a strong emotional response and began crying because she was so upset by what people had done. She was so moved by Joel Sartore’s work that the only Christmas gift she asked for was his Photo Ark book. When students have emotional responses they feel like they need to take action. This is the type of unplanned impact that may very well change the trajectory of a student’s life.

What advice would you give teachers looking to take a lesson they teach year after year and make it more engaging for students?

I would recommend that teachers remain open to both change and spontaneity while teaching a unit; this requires a lot of listening. Listen to your students and allow their genuine interests to lead the learning. In addition, sometimes there is an element of synchronicity. For example, while we were learning about keystone species, 60 Minutes aired a story about Joel Sartore. Watching that video in class became an integral part of our unit.

Another way to liven up a lesson is to find new resources and ideas using social media and other collaborative tools that connect teachers around the world. I think we have to embrace this new technology-filled world; otherwise, we will be stuck doing the same thing. I have been teaching for 20 years. When I first started the only classroom technology I had was an overhead projector. The world is changing quickly. We as teachers have to keep up with technology.

Polar bears are one of the keystone species Wendy’s students researched. Photo by Wendy Threatt

Educators: Download full lesson plan here

What is the most important thing you hope students will learn in your class?

I want my students to know that their words and actions really do make an impact and they have the ability to create change within themselves and their communities. I want my students to see themselves as people with valuable voices and ideas. I’m influenced by the quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I hope my students leave their year in fourth grade with me knowing they have the ability to do things differently. In doing so, they will influence themselves and everyone around them.

Now more than ever, science instruction needs to be grounded in the urgency of educating the next generation about the problems humanity is facing. We need to give students the tools they will need to tackle these problems. Yes, it’s important to teach standards, but we also need to give our students a true understanding of what’s happening in the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Interested in joining Wendy as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at

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