A Field Study with Purpose: The Grade 8 Ecosystem Assessment

Debra Finger
On a beautiful Thursday in March, Shipley’s eighth grade science students headed to Saunders Woods, part of the Natural Lands Trust, to do an ecosystem assessment and determine the health and function of the area. They had been studying ecosystems in class, including food webs, energy flows, cycles of matter, and organism relationships; had created a simulated ecosystem assessment. Now it was time to put their learning into action with an authentic assessment.

Students defined their own research questions, determined how they were going to gather the data, designed a field study around their question, set up their plots samples, took measurements, wrote up their analyses, presented their findings, drew conclusions on the health of the ecosystem, and offered recommendations to improve or continue to promote its health. 

How did they get to this point?

Defining scientific research questions and the process of inquiry is an important part of Middle School science classes. Beginning in sixth grade, students use the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) and the SMART acronym (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Relevant to the study, Testable) to define their questions, then design experiments to help them answer these questions. 
Students go through the scientific process of generating a hypothesis, defining variables, running the experiment, collecting and analyzing data, then drawing conclusions. This process happens six to seven times per year for each grade level, so by the time the students get to eighth grade, to the Saunders Woods Ecosystem lab, they have had a lot of practice.

Two such questions in the Saunders Woods ecosystem assessment were: Is the ratio of fungi to plants healthy? Does sunlight affect the biodiversity and height of plant life? Both groups used 5’ x 5’ plot samples, collected their data from their cordoned off areas, and then extrapolated the information to the rest of Saunders Woods to create their recommendations.

The Takeaway - Creating Meaningful Learning Experiences

This lab is just one example of students actively engaging in the “doing” of science and scientific research. This gives students more context to what they are studying and learning in class, thereby allowing them to apply their knowledge in meaningful, authentic, purposeful ways.


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.