top of page

Lesson Plans

These lesson plans are all lessons I have taught. Many are combinations of my own additions and improvements, with the original authors noted. Feel free to use them in your own classrooms. The links in the materials section download the documents. If you have a problem downloading anything please let me know

Otolith Chemistry: On the forefront of fish ecology

I wrote this lab to introduce students to an important new tool in fisheries, while also introducing them to R and RStudio. 


Otoliths, analogous to the human inner ear, are calcium carbonate crystals that grow a new layer each day a fish is alive. These rings grow sequentially like a tree, providing age and growth information in the same way as trees. Uncovering the chemistry in these layers can allow us to reconstruct exactly where a fish has been, among may other semi-miraculous data available in otoliths. I believe this may be on of the only, if not *the* only undergraduate lab introducing students to the concepts and techniques of strontium isotope chemistry.


This lab uses the IsoFishR Shiny app for R, created by Malte Willmesto guide students through interactive analysis of otolith chemistry data. Students are then allowed to make their own decisions about determining life-history of additional otoliths, followed by questions intended to delve deeper into the assumptions and limitations of otolith chemistry.  


By the end of this lab students should have an understanding of:

  • basic otolith chemistry

  • the connection between otolith chemistry and salmon movement

  •  familiarity with the use of R to run interactive Shiny apps 

  • familiarity running scripts to plot data in {ggplot}

Level: Undergraduate (introductory to upper level)


Changes and additions

The lab data can be changed to any otolith chemistry data, provided the accompanying scripts are changed to match

Plotting can be an opportunity to learn the syntax of R code if time allows, rather than simply running a script to produce plots

The assignment could be expanded into a scientific report, given more data to analyze or interpret. 


Beans and Rice Optimal Foraging Lab: Charnov's Marginal Value Theorem

The marginal value theorem describes how animals make foraging decisions in order to optimize their resource intake in a patchy environment. Charnov's 1976 paper is accessible reading and makes a good paper to allow students to interpret literature and theory and put it into practice. The lab activity itself uses easily available materials (dry beans, white rice, and rubbermaid tubs) to simulate foraging. The lab combines engagement, exploration, and writing as students work to plan and conduct an experiment that will test one of Charnov's predictions...using their classmates as foragers. (Created by Craig Layne and others at Dartmouth University. Improved and organized by Jens Hegg and Brian Kennedy)

Level: Undergraduate (introductory to upper level)


Engagement Video Options


Estimating Moving Populations: The Lincoln-Peterson Mark-Recapture Estimator


This lesson introduces the idea of how scientists count animal populations when it isn't possible to count every single individual. After briefly introducing some species that travel long distances, or exist across large expanses, the students are immediately brought into a hands-on activity that steps them through the Lincoln-Petersen mark-recapture model to estimate population size. 

The lab then continues into a field-based application of the mark-recapture technique using water-striders as the population of interest. Water striders are a great model population because they

are often numerous in a stream, they are relatively easy to catch and mark, and the lab can be completed quickly.  This lesson is adaptable to a large range of learners. I have taught it to 10-12th grade students at the highschool level, but the water-strider lab itself comes from an undergraduate course in Field Methods in Ecology course at Berkeley. I have conducted this same lab using beetles and snails as well, the target species only needs to be easily captured and have movements limited enough that some individuals can be recaptured and that the assumption of a closed population is not too severely violated (but, this assumption is a good discussion point!). 


The lab and the hands-on activity could be modified to include more complex mark-recapture estimators, calculation of confidence intervals, multiple re-capture intervals, or the use of more complex statistical inferences using Program MARK or other statistical tools. The included in-class cricket mark-recapture can also be used if conditions or schedule make it impossible to conduct this lab in the field. 

Level: Upper level high school to undergraduate. (Very adaptable to include additional complexity and higher-level learning)



Organization of the Environment


This is a full lesson-plan covering organization of the environment I wrote for an upper level high school elective Wildlife/Environmental Science class. The intent is to introduce students to how the abiotic and biotic environment interact to organize the physical environment. The underlying geology and geography affect where species are found, and the biotic environment creates changes in abiotic factors (for instance, vegetation holds soil against erosion). 

The lesson begins with an open-ended exploration of a field site after a very brief introduction to the idea that the physical world is organized spatially. The idea is to allow students to explore with

their own senses the organization that they see, while recording it using digital cameras for use later. The field-based exploration then transitions to a lab-based stream-table activity that lets students ask and answer questions about how changes to the physical environment affect the aquatic/riparian environment. The lesson culminates in students preparing a presentation about organization of the landscape. These can be in PowerPoint but I have found that students are more engaged in creating and watching Prezi presentations.

Level: Written for upper-level high school, easily adaptable to introductory undergraduates


Engagement Video


Operation High Roller: Birds of Prey


This is a very short lesson introducing birds of prey that is intended to get students thinking about raptors from the perspective of conservation, legal protections, and stakeholder interactions. It leads into the following lesson on wolf conservation and could be used in conjuction with it. 

The lesson is based around a compelling article in Backpacker magazine called "Secet Agent Man". The article details the experiences of a US Fish and Wildlife Department detective in convicting members of a rolling pigeon fanciers club of illegally killing birds of prey.  

It is an engaging read that opens up a lot of room for discussion about how conservation happens for protected spceis, and how different stakeholders can have very different desires and expectations. 

Level: This could be used from highschool to graduate-level as a discussion starter



Research and Writing Lesson: Wolf endangered species act listing/delisting


This lesson is intended as a longer term research project to build writing and critical thinking skills. The students are introduced to wolf ecology and the affects of their reintroduction with one or two videos. The main engagement activity is a mock public hearing in which teachers/professors/TA's play the role of two or more stakeholders in the debate over whether to list or delist the grey wolf from the endangered species act. (I taught this lesson when delisting was a big news topic. It could be easily changed to reflect more current, or more local, issues surrounding wolf depredation or arguments around whether wolves are decreasing elk populations in prime hunting regions.) 


The hearing can be a huge amount of fun if you have a few people willing to really get into playing 

playing their parts as stakeholders. Costumes, accents, and really getting into character mean the difference between a dry activity and something that students remember vividly for years. It's worth it to look for people who can make this an entertaining moment while still sticking to "facts" as they are seen from that stakeholders point of view. 

The paper itself is a great opportunity to foster critical analysis. This is a very polarizing topic and there are plenty of highly biased sources. Your students themselves may have deep baises (if this is the case consider the option of having students reveal their opinion directly after the "hearing"...and then have each student write from an opposite stakeholder perspective). The lesson plan includes several links to resources for talking to students about how to evaluate sources. For upper-level undergraduates this is a great way to foster the skill of reaching into the primary literature for evidence, and for critiquing the secondary literature for truthfulness.


Be prepared. Helping students (whether highschool or undergraduate) to learn these skills requires a fair amount of formative work. Be prepared to spend some time and to go through at least one draft, if not two, prior to the final paper. 

Level: Best as an upper-level undergraduate term paper. It is written for high school (secondary sources, less rigorous expectations of the writing)


Engagement Video Options

bottom of page