Educator Spotlight: Investigating Ecosystem Diversity

Zana Pouncey, an educator at a botanical garden, asked students to step into the shoes of botanists studying the diversity of native plants in an ecosystem. Following methods used by the garden’s conservation team, students practiced identifying plants and conducted diversity surveys.

Zana Pouncey is the school programs coordinator at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Atlanta, GA. Photo by Matthew Pendrick

For your National Geographic Educator Certification capstone project, you introduced students to quadrat sampling, a method of assessing ecosystem diversity by recording species located within small sections of habitat. What inspired this activity and how did you facilitate it?

I wanted to develop an activity that would enable students to explore different methods of studying plants and understand the importance of ecosystem diversity for conservation. Our conservation team at the botanical garden uses quadrats as a tool to survey rare and endangered plant species around the world, and I was inspired to have students emulate that field work in a way that was accessible to them.

To set up the activity, I identified a safe space in our garden where students could work without disturbing the flow of traffic or damaging plant beds. I placed hula hoops on the ground to represent ecosystems and scattered tree seeds inside the hula hoops to represent plants.

Once students arrived, we discussed the importance of plant research and learned about the tools we would use. Working in groups, students randomly placed quadrats—1’ by 1’ frames that I created from wire hangers—inside the hula-hoop ecosystems to define the sample area they would study. They identified and recorded any tree seeds inside the quadrat. Finally, we discussed how to calculate diversity from their data and what that data can tell them about the diversity of an ecosystem.

Each student group used a quadrat to define a sample area and then recorded the types and quantities of tree seeds in that area. Photo by Zana Pouncey

What did you observe about how students reacted and responded to the activity?

I think students felt empowered to be practicing plant surveys and realized that plant research isn’t as scary or challenging as they initially might have thought. I noticed that every student was engaged with the activity and actively participating in some way, which was exciting to see. By the end of the activity, their confidence had grown in their own ability to collect data, understand that data, and use a plant identification guide.

I also observed that students started to form a more thoughtful understanding of ecosystem diversity and how humans benefit from plants in our daily lives. It seemed like they genuinely enjoyed being outdoors in a more relaxed learning environment; it really put them in a “scientist” mindset that made them feel connected to the work they were doing.

You mentioned that students were eager to talk about their observations. What are some different ways educators could facilitate continued conversation and exploration following this kind of activity?

One strategy is to ask questions that focus on the experience of the activity—such as students’ observations and feelings about it—rather than results-oriented questions with right and wrong answers. For example, instead of defining ecosystem diversity and telling students why it’s important, I might ask, “How would you describe ecosystem diversity?” Then, I would collect student answers on a board and develop a definition of diversity together as a group. Or, rather than telling students why plants are useful, I might have them brainstorm how they use plants in their daily lives. I’ve found that when students lead the discussion, they’re more engaged and willing to share their thoughts with me.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here.

As an educator at a botanical garden, what kinds of activities and programs do you lead for students?

I work with Title 1 schools to lead programs for K-12 students in their classrooms and at the garden. Our interactive, standards-based lessons range in topic from seeds to carnivorous plants to taste tests. We integrate art, games, data collection, and other elements to create hands-on lessons that help students form personal connections with plants and engender excitement about nature.

Why do you think it is important for students to visit the botanical garden, and what kind of impact do you hope the visits will have on them?

Working at a botanical garden affords me the unique opportunity to expose students to the fascinating world of plants. Many people don’t consider plants to be cool or interesting compared to animals. At the botanical garden, we get to challenge those ideas by showing students just how important and interesting plants can be. Students begin to consider how they use plants on a daily basis as food, medicine, clothing, paper products, and more.

It’s my hope that when students leave the garden, they have a newfound respect and appreciation for plants and feel excited about the possibilities of what nature has to offer. I once overheard a student saying, “Now I’m so curious about plants,” which is honestly my biggest goal.  

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

This interview has been edited and condensed.

5 thoughts on “Educator Spotlight: Investigating Ecosystem Diversity

  1. Practical knowledge always has an upper hand over theoretical knowledge. Zana, you have indeed done a great job by giving chance to students to participate and practice in identifying plants and conducting diversity surveys. Diversity in the ecosystem always impacts the thought process of humans in a positive way.

  2. Great initiatives Zana! I appreciate your way of involving students in field work. This opportunity has given students a chance to learn more about plants and the ecosystem. Students of AUSD will be inspired after reading this article. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  3. I loved how your lesson lead them directly into an understanding of how diverse various ecosystems around the world are but also, how diverse their local ecosystems and micro-ecosystems are as well.

  4. Hola, estoy leyendo tu proyecto y me pareció magnífico, yo estoy estudiando justo el tema de biodiversidad con mis estudiantes y debo felicitarte por la manera como lo abordaste. Excelente y felicidades!

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