Even though ecology plays an important role in understanding today's society and environment, it is often not much liked by students. Ecological issues are always connected to the problems we will be faced with in the future, and this often causes anxiety because not enough possible solutions are shown. Open-ended teaching methods are particularly suitable to investigate ecological questions because they enable and encourage the students' individual responsibility and activity.
In grade 11 (17 year olds), the students at the Zurich Atelierschule in Switzerland complete a three week practicum in marine biology and ecology. This includes the careful study of individual organisms and particularly their interactions in various ecosystems. We have therefore chosen a location which displays a wealth of habitats suitable for comparative study. The course includes the study of geography, meteorology, soil science and astronomy to facilitate interdisciplinary science. It includes abiotic factors – which we might call the forces of the surroundings – that are integral to a holistic understanding of a landscape.
The teaching of biology should be alive and practical; therefore it needs to be rooted in the study of natural phenomena. Any issue studied in the classroom metamorphoses into new skills by direct and research and the immediate experience of nature. Learning is truly enhanced when nature's extraordinary phenomena are observed and then deepened through independent research projects.
2. Marine Biology and Ecology Project of Atelierschule Zürich
2.1. Basic requirements
In the grade 11 Waldorf curriculum for biology we find two core topics: Cytology and an overview of the whole plant kingdom. Ecology, as part of the biology curriculum is missing from Steiner's curriculum but is hinted at in various forms in the curricula for grades 11 and 12. Furthermore, there is a tradition at many Waldorf schools to teach astronomy in grade 11 and Steiner suggests to “teach cytology cosmologically.”
Cytology and the overview of the whole plant kingdom are taught in the regular biology main lesson in grade 11, the foundations of ecology are then studied in preparation for the marine biology and ecology project. The students work with a series of lecture notes which explain the basic terminology with the help of examples. The careful reading of these notes is a basic requirement for successful work in the project.
We have chosen the small French island Ile d'Yeu, about 16 km off the West coast of France, as the location for our project. Despite its small size (10km long and 4km wide), it offers a variety of landscapes as well as an extraordinary wealth of plants. About one sixth of all French flowering species can be found here. We have deliberately chosen an area which is foreign to our students because the confrontation with something new enables them to look closer and observe phenomena in more depth. This is one of the foundations for independent study and profound research.
2.2. Arrival and the First Day
Upon arrival at our base camp with its spacious rooms, we usually go for a short drive across the island to look at the two very different coasts. There are the dunes, facing the continent and the rocky coast with its cliffs and small beaches, facing the Atlantic.
Next day, we introduce the learners to the various work stations scattered around the island. The students then start on initial tasks, such as an animal or plant observation, which establish the methods used in the coming three weeks. Everyone is given a map of the island on which they mark the locations of the work stations so that these can always be found easily.
2.3. Topics and Group Work
For the next two weeks, the groups work at various stations. The teachers visit them once a day in order to discuss any questions arising out of the tasks. It is of paramount importance that everyone turns up on time at the correct meeting point so that every group can be visited daily.
The work stations and tasks:
- Exploring the drift line:
- What is washed up with the tide?
- Which animals live in this habitat?
- What are the differences between the rocky barriers and the pure sand?
- What are the differences between the various parts of the beach?
- Which animals can be observed on the sand and in the sand?
- General description of the dunes
- Environmental factors, light, temperature, exposition
- General impression of the vegetation, fauna, the atmosphere of the dune: How does the dune affect me, what do I sense here?
- Dune profile with vegetation sketch
- Characterization of the individual zones in the dune, soil composition (calcium test)
- Vegetation Assessment (2 days)
- The plants in the “dunes embryonnaires”
- The plants in the “dunes mobiles”
- The plants in the “dunes fixées”
- The ecosystems in the forests of the “dunes boisées”
- Please research:
- Which plants grow here?
- Sketch the plants' shapes from nature
- Which forms and shapes are found in the vegetative and generative parts of the plants?
- What are the differences in the same plants found at more than one location in terms of shapes, size and colour? Please give a reason for the differences.
- General description of the location: for tasks see the chapter on dunes.
- Vegetation Assessment (2 days)
- Plants at the front coast line (without algae)
-Which species are found?
- What are their forms?
- Where do they grow? (microhabitats); what are the differences in vegetation between the individual microhabitats?
- General characteristics of the shapes of typical plants; sketches from nature
- Plant species on cliffs and cliff edges
- General aspects of the rocky coast, including the stretch towards the inland
- Characterize the shapes of some typical plant species
- How do the plants' shapes change from the coastline towards the inland?
Rocky Tidal Flats / Mud Flats (4 days)
- General characterization of this habitat
- Sketch a habitat profile from the low to the high tidal line, including animal and plant species
- What kind of habitat is found just a little above the high tidal line?
- Compare three different mud flats
- Describe the atmosphere in the mud flats
- Which plants and animals are typical for this habitat?
- Name the most important macro algae
- Observe the behaviour of various animals
- Water analysis
- The rock pool as a habitat:
- Which plants and animals are found in the rock pools?
- What differences are there between the rocky tidal flats in the vicinity of the rock pools?
- What are the special features of this ecosystem? Describe the interdependence of the various plants and animals.
2.4. The Third Week – Summaries of Group Work
In the third week, we try to sum up the responses to the individual tasks which have been worked on in the field. The groups circulate between the dunes and the cliffs and discuss the general questions with the two teachers.
At the end of the second and during the third week, all the students and teachers meet for seminars in which general ecological topics are addressed. Issues connected to chronobiology and the “biology of the moon” are discussed and there is an interdisciplinary co-operation with the geography teacher during the practicum. He or she deals with questions to do with astronomy and European geography connected to the students' observations on the Ile d'Yeu. The interdisciplinary approach of the seminars helps the students to place their own work in a wider context.
3. Example of Student's Work
General Characterization of the Dune:
At first sight, the dunes do not seem very friendly to me. The main colours are pastel greens, yellows, greys and matt greens; perhaps it is because of these colours that the dune looks to me like some wild beauty. There is a contradictory element in the appearance of the dune; the vegetation and fauna appear barren at first, but close observation reveals a colourful and varied world. The ground of the “dunes fixées” at the top is covered in dense vegetation, dominated by a matt green colour and interrupted by some small flowers such as “dianthus gallicus” and “sedum acre”. The vegetation reminds me a little of the Alps, and the dune pines in the “dunes boisées”, just behind, reinforce this impression; their trunks twist in a similar manner to Alpine pines.
Toward the Atlantic, the dunes fall more or less steeply, this part is called “dune mobiles”; on it we find a variety of “elymus athericus”, grasses, “calystegia soldanella” and many flowering species of the compositae family. About 50% of the sandy ground is visible, particularly at the front where the “dunes mobiles” merges into the “dunes embryonnaires”. These consist of mainly sand, with the only exception of some tiny plants which grow about 50cm away from the high tidal line and therefore are often flooded by bigger waves. These tiny plants include “salsoa kali”, “cacile maritima” and “atriplex littoralis”.
The fauna is, albeit tiny, quite varied. At the rocky crag between the “dunes fixées” and the “dunes mobiles” I have found the small holes of the buff-tailed bumblebee, lizards are seen between the plants, there are beetles and at the feet of the trees we find ants. The sand is covered with thousands of talitrus saltator (beach flea) and the top is inundated with terrestrial snails. They gather in colonies on high plants to prevent dehydration.
Limestone analysis: The coarsest sand with the highest lime content is found near the sea; further up, there are the finer sands with less lime, this is where the sand gradually mixes with soil and humus. The ground under the trees is still visibly sandy but it isn't as light as further down.
Today, the wind came from north-east, the sea is in the north-west and behind it we can see the European continent on the horizon. The light on this dune is very strong. (Nora Dämpfle in Wunderlin 2000)
4. Evaluation of the Practicum
An intensive preparation phase is necessary for the success of this practicum. I recommend to consider the following aspects carefully:
1. The groups should be balanced. As a rule, someone in the group should be good at drawing, another one good with language and the third one should be a careful observer. The teacher needs to intervene if the students choose the groups according to established friendships.
2. The preparation at home is crucial. A certain amount of skill and knowledge is necessary for the autonomous research in the field. Our experience is that about 4 hours are sufficient for the preparation at home, the rest can be filled in on site.
3. Every group needs plenty of materials, such as books for identifying species. Foreign books are also suitable; we have successfully used some French books for identification. Furthermore, we have developed our own identification key particularly for the Ile d'Yeu.
4. The teachers have to know the location thoroughly and be prepared for surprises in flora and fauna. However, it can also be motivating for students to be able to identify an unknown species and to realize that their teachers do not know everything. Due to climate change, we have had quite a few surprises in recent years.
5. A small library should be available for further research; normally, our students use it extensively.
6. The students' reports have to be corrected daily so that the teachers are up to date with the work in the groups and can adjust it where necessary.
The practicum is an intensive time for students and teachers alike. We have often seen that the students work with more concentration and more thoroughly than in regular lessons. The experience also helps them to become more mature. In final exams we have found that the students remember the content of the practicum much better than the content of regular lessons. It would be possible to learn much faster in the classroom, but the extra time spent with practical field biology is well worth it. The students acquire applied and practical knowledge which they internalize so that it has a long-term effect. The practicum has helped some students to find their future field of study.
Ulrich Wunderlin studied biology and chemistry and wrote his final thesis on the developmental morphology of flowering plants.
He started to teach at Rudolf Steiner School in Zurich in 1989 and moved on to teach at the Steiner Atelierschule Zurich in 2004. His research focused on the didactics and methodology of the phenomenological teaching of chemistry as well as on the applied pedagogy of ecology. A series of teacher's handbooks on phenomenological chemistry have been published as a result of Ulrich's research. (Lehrbuch der phänomenologischen Chemie with a DVD Edition of in-class experiments focusing on observable phenomena. Edition Waldorf. 2011 – 2013).
From 2009 on, Ulrich regularly spent time in the tropics to study the Goethean approach to ecology and the biotic communities in coral reefs.
Ulrich Wunderlin passed away unexpectedly in 2016 during a research trip to Africa.
Translated by Karin Smith
6. Further Reading:
Hegele, I. (2002): Stationenarbeit. In Wiechmann, J. (Hrsg): Zwölf Unterrichtsmethoden – Vielfalt für die Praxis. Beltz Weinheim und Basel.
Schiebel, A. (2001): Offener Unterricht und Lernzirkel. Was ist das. http://home.vrweb.de/~kroll.schiebel/ou.htm. 28.12.08 ; 13:25
Skiba, F. & Spieler, M. (2008): Lernen an Stationen: Mensch und Tier. In: Unterricht Biologie 337/338, Seite 2 – 9.
Steiner, R. (1988): In Stockmeyer, E.A.K. (1988); Angaben von Rudolf Steiner für der Waldorfunterricht. Stuttgart 1988
Wunderlin, U. (1990): Die Küstenvegetation der Ile d’ Yeu / Elemente der Naturwissenschaft Nr. 52. Seite 80 - 100
Wunderlin, U. (1998): Dokumentation zum Studienprojekt Ökologie-Astronomie auf Ile d‘ Yeu. Privatdruck für die Sponsoren
Wunderlin, U. (2000): Dokumentation zum Studienprojekt Ökologie-Astronomie auf Ile d‘ Yeu. Privatdruck für die Sponsoren.
Wunderlin, U. (2002): Ile d‘ Yeu Video-Dokumentation des Praktikums auf Ile d‘ Yeu