Scientific Inquiry in Local Ecosystems

Purpose: The purpose of this lesson is two-fold: (a) to provide a real life experience of ‘doing scientific inquiry’ which is focused on a local issue; and (b) to provide an opportunity for students to share their results with an expert scientist (Activity 1) Melissa Miller.


Key concepts: science, inquiry, scientific inquiry, nitrates, phosphates, bacteria, pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, fertilizer, ammonia, blue-green algae, Microcystis, Microcystin, toxins, contamination, pollution, decomposition, etc.


Research based: Sociocultural theory with an emphasis on co-constructing knowledge and negotiating meaning using Wells (1999, 2002, 2010) model, ‘Spiral of learning and teaching through inquiry’.


Materials: Scientific inquiry template books, water quality kit, pencils, erasers, gloves, posters, and markers.


Wells’ model, “Spiral of learning and teaching through inquiry,” in action:


I. Tapping into students’ prior knowledge and experiences:


Pre-assessment: (Use pdf)


Use the pre-assessment questions to tap into students’ prior knowledge and experience about engaging in the scientific inquiry process of investigating the water quality at 5 locations. Allow students time to share their knowledge and experiences in pairs, small groups, and whole class. Both you and the students can review the scientific inquiry template books (after the pre-assessment) to scaffold each step of the inquiry process. This also provides an opportunity to discuss key concepts within the context of the book.


II. Gathering information:

Students can seek information from the teacher (articles and video) and Internet about Melissa Miller’s discovery of how blue-green algae from Pinto Lake flowed through the Pajaro watershed: Corralitos Creek, the Pajaro River, and Pacific Ocean, which resulted in the death of several sea otters. Microcystin is a toxin released from blue-green algae. This toxin contaminated the shellfish which the sea otters eat, thus resulting in fatal liver damage. Students’ mission is to investigate whether these sites have additional contaminates such as nitrates, phosphates, bacteria, etc. Note: Your class may not reside along the Central California Coast, thus you can choose a different environmental issue to focus on. If you need a scientific inquiry template book designed for the local environmental issue your class is investigating, please contact the curriculum designer (Lisa M. Algee at [email protected]) and she can assist you.


III: Co-constructing knowledge together:

Allow students time to learn about what a watershed is, in this specific case, we as a class are starting at the source of the problem (Pinto Lake). We will first test the water at (a) Pinto Lake, (b) Corralitos Creek, (c) Pajaro River), (d) school (as a control), and (e) filtered water, also as a control. As a class, explore Google maps to get a visual image of how the watershed flows (starting at Pinto Lake and ending with the Pajaro River flowing into the Pacific Ocean).

IV. Understanding

Demonstrating understanding through post-assessment and activities (see activities):


Post-assessment: (Use pdf)