Bringing the Urban Environment Into the Classroom: Learning From an Estuarine Mesocosm

by James C. SullivanTheresa O'Neill,² and John R. Finnerty¹

¹ Biology Department, Boston University, 5 Cummington Street, Boston, MA 02135
² Odyssey High School, South Boston, MA


As the United States and the world become increasingly urbanized, human populations exert a more concentrated impact on their local environments. The effects of human activity extend well beyond the geographical borders of cities, to almost every remote area. This worldwide urbanization has the additional impact of distancing urban youth from pristine habitats and making it difficult for them to connect with the natural world. This paper describes an inquiry-based educational unit that is designed for an environmental science class, biology class, or general science class and can be taught at a variety of grade levels (grades 6–12) with slight modification. In the unit, which supports National Science Education Standards (Appendix A), small groups of students observe an estuarine mesocosm. Each mesocosm is seeded with one common macroinvertebrate that inhabits urban salt marshes. Students research their organism through observation and literature review and present their findings to the rest of the class. The purpose of the unit is manifold: 1) to allow students to reconnect with the natural world; 2) to introduce the concept of adaptation to the urban biome; 3) to allow students to understand that many commonly encountered organisms may have economic or recreational benefits to human society as well as value independent of human concerns; and 4) to increase students' knowledge base regarding salt marsh ecosystems and the natural histories of four salt marsh–inhabiting organisms. Requiring the students to conduct independent research and report their findings to the class engages them in peer teaching and also forms a basis for formative and summative assessment. In addition, because the unit may require the use of multiple computer programs by the students, it reinforces or introduces the use of such tools in a format that is likely to maintain their interest.

Key words: urban ecology, lesson plan, secondary school, education, starlet sea anemone, banded killifish, grass shrimp, periwinkle