While I enjoy the subject, I am always looking for new ways to engage my students. Admittedly, some times I over-think these ideas. Sometimes, the simplest idea can ignite student engagement. This is the story of one of those times!
I teach science at an all-boys, Catholic high school in Kirkwood, Missouri. We pride ourselves in understanding the unique learning needs of the developing male brain. Research shows that boys learn best when active. Movement is a very "brain-friendly" strategy for educating boys. So I set out to test those theories with an age-old game: sharks and minnows! Turns out, it worked INCREDIBLY well!
-Flag football flags for the minnows
-300 poker chips
-Colored bibs or shirts for the sharks
-Cones for the boundaries of your ecosystem.
I use this game an introduction to our ecology unit. Specifically, the activity helps students realize that they know more about a common ecological relationship (predator-prey) that cycles energy through our world. As a twist this year, I don't sell this as a "science game." I merely tell them that we need to burn off some energy by playing a game: sharks and minnows. Most kids recall the rules of the game so set up is very easy. I usually have my classes count off in 4s or 5s so that I can easily cycle each group through the roles of predator and prey.
We jump into a game immediately after set up with only one rule: sharks must catch 1 minnow to remain "alive" in the game. If a shark doesn't; he is removed from the ecosystem. Off we go! The kids love the freedom to run around! As expected, as the number of minnows decrease, the number of predators eventually decreases as it is harder for them to meet their energy needs. After a few repetitions, I stop the game and ask a few loaded questions:
What do we call the animal that is getting eaten?
What happens to the number of prey initially?
What eventually happens to the number of predators when the number of prey decrease?
NOT ENOUGH FOOD!
What are some of the strategies that minnows used to survive?
SPEED! TRAVELING IN GROUPS! HIDING BEHIND OTHER MINNOWS
What are some of the strategies used by sharks to survive?
WORKING TOGETHER! SPEED! SEARCHING FOR SLOWEST MINNOW!
At the start of round 2, I spread approximately 100 poker chips over the playing surface. These poker chips represent the food needed by the prey to stay alive. Each minnow must grab a poker chip and avoid being "eaten" to remain alive. As with before, we play multiple repetitions. While students notice that the same predator-prey relationship exists, they notice that the process of acquiring food makes the minnows an easier target for opportunistic predators. We also discuss the idea of conserving resources as the students notice that a few greedy minnows can remove enough energy to effect the population. We run through a few repetitions of this before changing the scenario slightly.
In the third round, I reinforce the idea that organisms need more than energy to survive by assigning each of the colors of poker chips to a specific role:
Rounds 4 - 6
Usually, we play 4 to 6 rounds of sharks and minnows depending on the amount of time left in class. Each time, I alter the scenario slightly. Other modifications that I have used in the past include:
1. Concentrating the food in one location;
2. Creating "safe zones" for the prey;
3. Requiring the sharks to pick up chips in addition to eating a minnow; and
4. Raising the number of minnows that each shark needs to eat to survive.
The coolest part of the this activity is that it engages boys in the way most learn best: activity. The developing male brain is stimulated and engaged through activity. Retention rates for key concepts increases. When competition can be added to the mix, amazing things are possible. I've been shocked at how a child's game has worked so well in a high school setting.
What are some of the "non-traditional" activities that you do in class to engage you students? Any games that you play? Strategies that you enjoy? I would love to hear the things you use in your classrooms!