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Community Structure Student Learning Story

Brief Overview
In this student learning story I will describe a lesson sequence on community structure in
an AP Biology class. The students in this class are eleventh and twelfth graders, and are
ethnically and academically diverse. This lesson sequence follows the study of population
ecology. It aims to give students opportunities analyze real-world case studies of community
structures in order to answer scientific questions and make predictions.

Goals for Student Learning


The learning objectives for this lesson sequence are 1) for students to justify the selection
of the kind of data needed to answer scientific questions about the interaction of populations
within communities (LO 4.11), and 2) predict the effects of a change in the communitys
populations on the community (LO 4.13), and 3) apply mathematical routines to quantities that
describe communities composed of populations of organisms that interact in complex ways (LO
4.12), which are from Collegeboards AP Biology learning objectives. Studying the structure of
ecological communities helps students see that interactions within biological systems lead to
complex properties, which will continue to be valuable as they progress through their science
careers. Specifically, students will seek to understand the manner in which groupings of species
are distributed in nature, and how they are influenced by their abiotic environment and species
interactions. These topics are relevant to the growing field of conservation biology, and will
prepare students for studies in conservation biology at the undergraduate level. As human
impacts on the environment increase in prevalence and severity, a meaningful understanding of
community ecology will also be valuable to all citizens in the decision-making processes that
will shape our environment in the future.
Our target scientific practices for this lesson sequence were using representations and
models to analyze situations or solve problems qualitatively or quantitatively (AP Biology
Science Practice 1.4), and justifying claims with evidence (AP Biology Science Practice 6.1).
The first practice is valuable in that helps students to apply scientific content knowledge in
situations that relate to real life, and the second practice is important in communicating
effectively and persuasively.

Story of What Happened


In the first lesson of the sequence, students investigated predator-prey interactions in two
different online simulators. The simulators showed the change in the predator and prey
populations over time, and students were able to manually adjust each population size to observe
the consequences in the other species population size. The students could adjust other variables
as well, such as predator aggression and birthrate, to see how they would influence the
population sizes. After making adjustments in the simulator, students would answer questions
about the effects of species interactions on population density. I helped students be successful by

showing them population density graphs and how to interpret them ahead of time, so that
students already know how to use them to analyze species interactions. This activity gave
students an opportunity to be successful achieving Learning Objective 4.12, which was to apply
mathematical routines to quantities that describe communities composed of populations of
organisms that interact in complex ways.
In the second lesson of the sequence, students analyzed different types of data related to
the interactions of fir tree, moose, and wolf populations on Isle Royale. They investigated the
question of whether these three population sizes were controlled by a top down (wolves are the
most influential) or a bottom up (fir trees are the most influential) mechanism. I supported
students in progressing through the three-part case study by introducing each part. When I
introduced them, I would explain the researchers methods and how the data is displayed. Then, I
would ask questions to see if students understand how to interpret the data, such as which pair
of graphs have maxima and minima that are lined up? and Does that mean they are positively
or negatively correlated?. I also scaffolded the activity by answering the questions in Part 1 and
a few key questions from Part 2 together as a class. Then, the students answered the rest of Part
2 and Part 3 on their own. This lesson incorporated the learning objectives for students to justify
the selection of the kind of data needed to answer scientific questions about the interaction of
populations within communities (LO 4.11), and apply mathematical routines to quantities that
describe communities composed of populations of organisms that interact in complex ways (LO
4.12).
Finally, in last lesson of the sequence students will analyze the ecological succession, or
recuperation, of a community following the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens. Students will answer
questions about the complex species interactions involved, and make predictions about the
recovery of the community. Students will complete this case study independently since they
have had plenty of practice analyzing community structure in the previous lessons. The Mt.
Saint Helens case study incorporates Learning Objective 4.13, which is to predict the effects of a
change in the communitys populations on the community.

Evidence of Student Learning


As students progressed through the lesson sequence they became more successful at
achieving the learning goals and using the target scientific practices. The first formative
assessment question that I asked was a warm up the day after the predator-prey simulation
activity. I showed the following graph and asked students to, Explain why the graph is
oscillating (moving back and forth in a pattern)? Make sure to say how a change in the pop size
of the prey influences the predators and vice versa.

I found that most (13 out of 17) students were successful at interpreting the graph and
were able to describe the populations as negatively correlated. However, only two students
completely explained why the populations are negatively correlated, and three students gave
partial explanations. For example, one student wrote:
Because while the predator is at a low point, the prey is higher point. While the
population size increases for the predator, the prey will decrease. [sic].
This response shows that the student can interpret the graph, but is not connecting it to
what is happening in the real world. The following student was much more articulate in her
explanation of how the two species interact:
The predator feasts on the prey, lowering the prey population. However, as there is
little prey, the predators do not have enough to feed on, so the predator population lowers. As
the predator population lowers, the prey can mate more and thus increases. Then the cycle
starts again, creating an oscillating pattern.
The Isle Royale case study improved students abilities to meet the learning objectives
immensely. After getting some support from me in using the data to answer scientific questions
(see Story of the Lesson above), most students were able to write more complete explanations
to a question that was very similar to the warm up they answered previously. The question asked,
How do the maxima and minima of the wolves correspond to changes in moose density? How
might you account for this relationship?. One students response is representative of the class
and said:
The wolves and moose have a negative correlation. When there is a maxima in the
moose graph there is a minima in the wolf graph and vice versa. This could be accounted for by
more wolves eat the moose, which, drops the moose population, but when the moose populations
drops the wolves have less food and drop as well, which would lead to a rise in moose
population [sic].
Later questions directly address the Learning Objectives for the sequence. For example,
the case study asks students to Design an experiment that would allow you to clarify any
ambiguities form Figures 1 or 2. Why might an experimental approach prove advantageous in
this situation. Since some of the data in Figures 1 and 2 is contradictory, students need to think
about what could be considered more reputable data (LO 4.11). One student described an
experiment where the researcher would establish a controlled environment to grow a sample of
the fir trees so that growth rates of the trees on the island could be compared to a baseline
group, thus eliminating differing climatic conditions on the island as a confounding variable.
Lastly, one question on the case study asked students, What would you predict as the effect of

wolf removal on plant growth under each hypothesis?. This addresses Learning Objective 4.13.
Most students answered this correctly, for example one student wrote:
For both hypotheses, removing wolves would make the fir tree population decrease.
With the top-down hypothesis, removing wolves will make there be more moose, which will eat
more fir trees. With the bottom-up hypothesis, there could only be fewer wolves if there were
fewer fir trees for the moose to eat, which made there fewer moose for the wolves to eat.
This response shows reasonable predictions that are supported by explanations.
The last lesson in the sequence involved more complex species interactions, but asked
students similar analysis questions. This case study displayed students mastery of the learning
objectives and their ability to use the target scientific practices. One question asked, What roles
did factors such as plant and animal interactions play in succession after the eruption? Many
students gave in-depth explanations of the complex species interactions involved in the recovery
of a community. For example, one student said:
Survivors such as the Lupine plant enriched the environment making it more livable for
other species. When those species moved back to the damaged area, they may have carried
other species on their body, such as seeds being carried on an animals fur. When new species
colonized the areas, they would add resources and homes to the environment, continuing to
increase species diversity.
Another question asked students, What do you predict will happen in the blast zone over
time? One exemplary student response said:
I predict that in hundreds of years the blast zone will have high species diversity and the
community will be almost the same as it was before. The species will slowly move back in steps
from simple to complicated species, because the complicated ones need more resources. The
basic plants and insects help the bigger animals and plants get what they need.
At the beginning of this lesson sequence on community structure, students were skilled in
interpreting population size graphs but struggled with connecting that information to examples of
what was happening in the real world. They also struggled with supporting their claims. As the
lesson sequence progressed, student responses showed an increasingly complex mastery of the
learning objectives around analyzing community structure, and a more successful use of the
target scientific practices.