Biodiversity. What does it mean?

The kids scratch their heads as they ponder the meaning of the large word written on the board. Biodiversity. What could that possibly mean? Both morning classes of 4th, 5th and 6th graders at the Alighieri school in East Boston are perplexed by this new word.

“Is it something that looks like bacteria?”

After some debate, they deduce that it is related to life.

“Yes, bio means life” explains Miss Heather.

The twelve students scribble diligently in their notebooks. BIO = Life

Miss Heather then asks about the word diversity, and the students are eager to answer.

“When a neighborhood is diverse, that means there are people of different races and religions all living together.” says one student. 

“Precisely! So when we combine them, bio-diversity means different kinds of life.” replies Miss Heather.

“Doesn’t every place have biodiversity?” asks Aya. These kids don’t miss a beat.

Aya was correct, and the kids were in luck because we had an exciting experiment in store to demonstrate its importance!

Miss Heather and I pass out colorful pieces of paper with instructions for creating (or drawing) a paper boat. As the kids construct what would become their fishing boats, we distribute compostable plates made of sugar cane fibers. We carefully place four Swedish fish, four marshmallows, four graham cracker bunnies, and four goldfish into each ‘fishing ground.’ 

Before starting the experiment, Miss Heather writes CONSERVATION on the board.

“What does conservation mean?”

The fourteen students in the second class were jumping out of their seats with the answer. 


“To save”

“To preserve”

“Yes!” says Miss Heather. “We make rules to limit the amount of fish that people can catch. Why do you think we make these rules?”

“If fish didn’t exist, our food chain would be screwed” says Oliver.

What a candid response. Oliver is right, and through the experiment we proved it.

Miss Heather gives the kids 30 seconds to go ‘fishing’ with biodegradable straws and catch as many creatures from their fishing ground as possible. At the end of the 30 seconds, most of the kids had completely decimated every species. There were no fish left in the fishing ground. Miss Heather has them write their observations down in their notebooks.

Isabella and Yara, 5th graders at the Alighieri Montessori School in East Boston

When Miss Heather asks them to go fishing again, they look at their empty plates with confusion. After some contemplation, they realize what they have done. There are no more fish left. I watch their expressions change from confusion to confidence as they decide they must create rules to limit the amount of fish they can catch! They discuss amongst themselves what conservation rules they should put in place, and then begin to predict how those rules will impact the different species of fish. After much debate, they collectively decide that for the second round they are only allowed to fish two of each species.

The experiment was a hit, and the kids delightfully consumed their entire fishing grounds after writing their last observations in their notebooks. Even with short 45-minute class slots, Miss Heather teaches complex topics like biodiversity to these fifty 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th graders. She consistently makes the classes fun, engaging, and contemplative. Kids are asked to use their brains as thinking critically is the goal, not having the ‘right’ answer.

We want to encourage curiosity and critical thinking in all people, not just in these young people at the Alighieri school. When we move through the world in this way, we begin to question things like why we still use Styrofoam in restaurants when we know it is destroying our environment, for example. What can we do to change this? There are so many answers to that question, and with these Climate NATURE classes we are preparing kids not only to ask these questions, but to think creatively around how to answer them too.

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