Teachers often find themselves answering “What’s this?” questions for their students. While there is nothing wrong with these questions, they tend to focus attention on the specific rather than drawing the student’s attention to the larger picture of nature’s recurring themes.

The field of environmental education has increasingly moved away from the identification approach to the idea of “concept learning,” which is adaptable to any environment and encourages participants to think and explore for themselves. This teaching method connects students to the natural world by making them a part of that world rather than outsiders. This personalized approach to scientific learning makes students aware of the vital role they play in any habitat, from salt marshes and rain forests to their own backyards.

The Salt Marsh as an Example of Concept Learning

The seven concepts listed below, adapted to the coastal habitat, were developed to draw participants’ attention to the ways organisms fit into dynamic environmental systems. “Questions for the Field” are to encourage onsite discussion and exploration of each concept.

This concept learning section was copied with permission from The Salt Marsh: A Complete Guide to Conducting Successful Field Trips for Grades K-12. 1994. Seacoast Science Center/Audubon Society of New Hampshire, Rye, NH 03870.

  1. Adaptation

    Animals and plants living in the coastal habitat have developed behaviors and/or structures that enable them to survive the harsh conditions of their environment. These adaptations may be seen in the morphology of the plant or animal (shells, spines, air bladders), in their physiology (the functioning of cells, organs, or entire organisms), or in the animal’s behavior (hiding, defense tactics, feeding).

    Questions for the field
    • What is an example of a morphological adaptation that helps an animal or plant survive?
    • How can an animal’s behavioral adaptations increase its chances for survival?
  2. Change

    The coast is a habitat subject to many changes. Animals and plants experience these changes continuously, both in short-term ecological time and in long-term geological time. Examples include salinity, temperature, and access to water in the short-term, and changes in habitat structure in the long-term. These changes constantly affect the animals and plants of the habitat.

    Questions for the field
    • What changes take place in the ecosystem on a daily, seasonal, or geological basis? (Don’t forget ice!)
    • How will these changes affect an animal in the habitat?
  3. Ecosystem

    Simply put, an ecosystem consists of the physical features of an area and the organisms living within it. Many physical factors such as salinity, wave action, temperature, and oxygen content influence the ecosystem.

    Questions for the field
    • What are the basic elements of an ecosystem?
    • What are 10 animals and five plants unique to the habitat you are investigating?
  4. Energy Cycle

    Energy from the sun is the driving force of almost every ecosystem on earth. An energy cycle can be thought of as a process: the sun provides the energy for plants to grow, plants become food for animals, and dead plants and animals decay into simple compounds that organisms absorb, continuing the cycle.

    Questions for the field
    • What is the significance of the sun to the ecosystem you are investigating?
    • Why is the death of any organism a necessary part of living in an ecosystem?
  5. Habitat

    A habitat is the place where a plant or animal lives. On a global scale, many ecosystems may be considered a single habitat, but as you explore coastal areas, you will find them comprised of many mini-habitats. There are zones within the marsh where certain organisms predominate, creating a mini-habitat that is easy to see. Some organisms live attached to one another, in root systems or burrowed in mud.

    Questions for the field
    • Identify two or three mini-habitats and explain how they differ from one another.
    • What are the organisms living in the mini-habitat you just found?
  6. Human Impact

    Virtually no ecosystem on earth has been left untouched by humans. Humans impact the marsh directly (e.g. when students walk on marsh grasses while exploring) and indirectly (e.g. when development near a marsh changes tidal inflow and outflow). Human impact on any ecosystem can be either positive or negative.

    Questions for the field
    • What are examples of positive and negative human impact on the habitat you are investigating?
    • How can humans reduce negative or strengthen positive impacts on the coastal ecosystem?
  7. Interdependence

    All coastal organisms have complex interrelationships. Animals and plants depend on one another for the necessities of life: food, shelter, and protection. The links between the organisms are critical for survival and changing these links can determine if an organism lives or dies.

    Questions for the field
    • What is an example of plant/animal interdependence?
    • Can you find a part of the habitat you are exploring where an interdependence link has been broken? What is the cause of the break?