Case Study

Exploring Insects in School Gardens

Arianne Mohr-Felsen

University of Arizona Community & School Garden Program

Amanda Riske

Arizona State University


This series of lessons provides opportunities for students to explore insects in their school garden by observing and collecting exoskeletons. Each student will search their garden’s soil for an insect exoskeleton then investigate and share. The students will present to peers, teachers, parents, and/or hobby entomologists. The class could also collectively publish a book about insects and how they function in their school garden and local environment.

This lesson series also develops curiosity for students about what was perhaps previously unnoticed, unseen, or viewed negatively.

Case Narrative

The following narrative shares the practical wisdom that contributed to the lesson development in addition to how, and why, it was taught in this manner.
I’ve shared a series of 6 lessons that build on an earlier insect curriculum unit I delivered to fifth graders. My lessons expand on the activity I found most engaging: giving students the opportunity to interact with insect exoskeletons up close. Given how powerful this experience was, the lessons introduce exoskeletons right away in lesson 1. In the earlier unit, students already learned about the different parts of an insect by looking at pictures and labeling their own diagram of an insect first but these lessons introduce a variety of exoskeletons right away and invite students to explore their school garden to learn about the roles that insects play in gardens, to find more exoskeletons and to use all of these samples together with existing resources.
A powerful aspect of these lessons in my experience is that students were alternately curious, excited, apprehensive, and icked out by the exoskeletons. Regardless of their emotion, though, students wanted to see and perhaps even hold the various exoskeletons. Their strong emotional reactions contributed to their learning, imbuing the experience with a range of feelings and helping them to later remember it. This also helped animate their earlier learning about the body parts of an insect and their respective functions.

Lesson Series: Exploring Insects in School Gardens

This series of six lessons currently targets second grade NGSS standards through considering interdependence within a school garden and ecosystem. Students learn about how insects help and hinder the garden plot through observations and investigating with resources.
Disciplinary Core Ideas:- LS1.A All organisms have external parts. Different animals use their body parts in different ways to see, hear, grasp objects, protect themselves, move from place to place, and seek, find, and take in food, water and air. Plants also have different parts (roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits) that help them survive, grow, and produce more plants.
-LS2.A Animals depend on their surroundings to get what they need, including food, water, shelter, and a favorable temperature. Animals depend on plants or other animals for food. They use their senses to find food and water, and they use their body parts to gather, catch, eat, and chew the food. Plants depend on water, air, minerals (in the soil), and light to grow. Animals can move around, but plants cannot, and they often depend on animals for pollination or to move their seeds around. Different plants survive better in different settings because they have varied needs for water, minerals and sunlight.
- LS4.D There are many different kinds of living things in any area, and they exist in different places on land and in water
Crosscutting Concepts:Structure and Function -- In grades K-2, students observe the shape and stability of structures of natural and designed objects are related to their function(s).
Scientific and Engineering Practices:Planning and Carrying out Investigations-Make observations (firsthand or from media) to collect data which can be used to make comparisons.
Seeing students’ own emotional connections and engagement with exoskeletons was a major reason why I focused on this topic. I created these lessons to help students learn about insects through their own observations and about how they contribute to the local school garden plot. Insects are all around us (whether we are comfortable with them or not) and contribute to our ecosystem. These lessons require students and their teacher to notice these small creatures and consider their roles in our ecosystem.
I was able to find all of these exoskeletons either in my yard or out on local hikes. Finding exoskeletons might seem like a challenge for others so I’ve included two videos showing insects I found in Tucson during the third week of March, 2020. I did not realize until I started looking in the soil, but insect exoskeletons are plentiful and not difficult to find! It was helpful for me to look in less trafficked areas. For example, looking inside of potted plants, under bushes, and around trees was more successful than looking directly on a path or walkway. The combination of getting away from more heavily trafficked areas, slowing down, and getting closer to ground level (via crouching, squatting, crawling, etc) have all helped me find exoskeletons quite quickly. This could also be an activity you engage in with students in your school garden or, if you have access, to less trafficked campus spaces.
Lesson 1: Insect Mission- What are insects?

Lesson 1: What is an Insect?

Lesson 2: Understanding Insects Roles: You, Bug, Me

Lesson 2: Understanding Insects Roles: You, Bug, Me

Lesson 3: Insect Exploration & Informational Text

Lesson 3: Insect Exploration & Informational Text

Lesson 4: Observing Insect Roles

Lesson 4: Observing Insect Roles

Lessons 5: Identifying Insects

Lesson 5: Identifying Insects

Lessons 6: Drafting Insect Book & presentation

Lesson 6: Drafting the Insect Presentation (possibly a book)

Teacher Finding Exoskeletons in Soil

The video shows students how to find exoskeletons in a garden. This can be helpful for teachers that are not sure where to start when looking for insects specimens.

Mission View Elementary

Who are the students?Second grade students in a public elementary school classroom who work with the same teacher throughout the school day; I joined the class as a student in the University of Arizona’s School & Community Garden Program.
Who are the garden leaders?I am a student at the University of Arizona and worked with a second grade teacher. Mission View’s garden is led by Luis Carbonell and Yvette Leon.
The community the school serves and its history.Opened in 1924, Mission View Elementary is a pre-K through grade 5, dual-language school situated in the city of South Tucson, a separate jurisdiction from Tucson but within the Tucson Unified School District. It is a Title I school whose population reflects the surrounding neighborhood which is predominantly Latinx and Native American low-income families. The school has several garden beds used by multiple grade levels. They also have an after school garden club and are certified to serve food from their garden in the cafeteria.
What other kinds of schools have you used this in?I first explored how to incorporate exoskeletons with a group of 5th grade students at Mission View but the second graders I worked with in 2019 were the first to use these lessons.

Connections to Ecoregion Topics

Designing for Science Teaching - my lesson organizes insect investigations, which relates to the following NGSS science and engineering practice: planning and carrying out investigations. Observations in school gardens and the exoskeletons collected by the class are used to explore biodiversity -- the diversity of things living in garden habitats (see this example of exploring biodiversity on a school campus). The questions that students raise as they observe campus sites could also be the seeds for other research questions beyond insects.
Place-based learning - my lesson uses exoskeletons to relate science to everyday activities and, in particular, explores the roles that insects play in locally relevant environmental phenomena like gardening. Students might also make observations or connections between these phenomena and other things happening in the community. As they search for exoskeletons in lesson 3, students might also notice other outdoor phenomena beyond gardening and gain a sense of appreciation and responsibility for how insects relate to their home, school, and overall neighborhood environments.