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Inner Space Journeys to Life on Earth

By Douglas Zook

See also What is Microcosmos?


Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 4050 Westmark Drive, Dubuque, Iowa, 52002

Copyright 1995


The following chapters are excerpted:

Excerpt from Chapter II: Energy in Living Systems

Students can become involved in an ongoing investigation which follows the basic procedures of Sergei Winogradsky, the great mid-nineteenth century microbiologist. Students collect soil or mud samples from a habitat. Using plastic bottles, they build a soil observation and growth chamber, an adaptation of what was called "Winogradsky columns." Known as "microbial skyscrapers" in the Microcosmos curriculum, the containers of mud prepared by the students in partnerships or as individuals are labeled for ongoing study. Placed in a ventilated area and under low incandescent light source in the classroom, these initial outcomes/products of the students' making are carefully observed. In as few as two weeks, evidence of colors begin to appear in the soil at the interface with the inner clear surface. If the teacher/facilitator has carefully avoided explanations, the students at this point become intrigued and even surprised to see what is happening to the soil. Now, the curriculum agenda, as planned by the teacher, becomes part of the agenda of the students, for it is the students who become curious and initiate questions related to the mud's pigmentation. Indeed, this developing teaching moment allows small groups of students to organize and raise a list of questions based on their observations and records in their inner space journals. These questions and follow-up discussions lead to new experiment ideas by the students. Some will want to start a new column, but with part of it covered in black paper. Another pair may use a stronger watt bulb or no light at all. Another experimenter may decide to put different colored acetate sheets on the outside of the cylinder. Still others may want to get veils from different habitats. In some more advanced classes, students can be guided to take samples from different pigmented areas to examine the sections in the microscope. The list of relatively simple but challenging exercises from this basic bacterial growth within the chamber is limited only by the teacher's imagination and "coverage" stresses which are no longer valued within the science education standards. Students are now actually engaged in ongoing photosynthesis-related study through inner space inquiry. Their involvement, including careful observations, writings in their journals, research designs, and display creations can become a vehicle for a more complete individualized assessment, as proposed in the standards. Critical thinking, creativity, and process skills at all grade levels can be part of an assessment vehicle for this Winogradsky-centered activity.

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Excerpt from Chapter III: Ecosystems and the Interdependence of Organisms

These astounding estimates can be put to good use by a teacher who works to incorporate an appropriate emphasis on ecology, as promoted within the science standards documents. For example, students can be asked to find out the distance from the earth to the moon and to create a usable representation or scale they can hang up in the classroom. They can then be asked to do a cell count inquiry of a salt water or even a pond tank using a microscope. Their task would be to somehow relate the two activities. What could one have to do with the other? Such an approach also helps students to make meaning of big numbers and to go beyond a potential "wow" to real appreciation and understanding. Even if this data were not incorporated directly into an activity, the numbers are convincing arguments for mainstream incorporation of the microcosmos into ecosystems concepts.

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Excerpt from Chapter VI: Technology

I can envision a class divided into inner space inquiry sub-groups and given various pieces of the puzzle framed around the questions: "Why did the British generals insist that along with ammunition, all linen and linen-making devices of the American colonists must be destroyed or removed? For what purposes was linen used and from where did it originate? "

These questions can evolve as a detective inquiry. The group can be given a different series of clues. The clues are in the form of objects and sketches or in written phrases, remarks, poems, or quotes. Object clues can include a piece of cried flax plant, a photograph of the plant or live specimen, a pillow case, a sailboat model, a sketch of a bacterium, a jar of pond water with flax or similar material inside, and so on. Students can then be given both in-class and out-of-class opportunities to create a story that helps to shed light on these questions. Developing a well-written narrative will enhance writing, cooperation, and imagination skills. Another group can be asked to develop a structured display of their findings.

Their research opportunities as inquiring detectives may take them to the available computers, the school and town libraries, and to potential regional experts or witnesses who can shed light on the mystery of flax. Before the assignment, the teacher can develop a list of potential resources or, better still, allow students to meet for a few minutes and come up with a list on their own which can then be shared and discussed with the entire class.

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Excerpt from Chapter VII: Size and Shape

Just imagine some of the fundamental questions that students can have opportunities to discover and pose in their own words and initial meanings: Why are whales and dinosaurs so big? Where do all those living things in the tiny drop of pond water get their food? How can millions of living things fit into a place the size of a dot on a paper-there isn't enough room?! Why don't these tiny celled things that are everywhere just rise up into space? Why are most cells shaped more like bubbles than rectangles or jagged? If microorganisms are so successful, why does there have to be big creatures like trees and elephants? If trees and elephants are so successful then how come microbes don't grow to that size? Isn't bigger better? The human eye is made up of tiny cells, so how come it didn't develop to let us see something as common as a microbe? Isn't being big something that depends on what your frame of reference is-I mean to an atom or a proton, a microbe is a giant?! If there are all these strong forces everywhere, like my foot stepping on the soil or hail falling at a great speed, or houses crashing down in a tornado, why don't all these tiny microbes get crushed and die? y teeing real small is so helpful, why don't we stay the size of babies? Are there things inside a cell that make it the shape and size it is?

[. . . .]

Utilizing a small hand microscope (obtainable at discount-write directly to Microcosmos, Boston University, 605 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215) with a surprisingly powerful light source, young children can easily discover a new, fascinating micro perspective. Small groups of students within the classroom are given pieces of cardboard cut from discarded boxes. The students practice simple measuring and drawing of lines as they prepare the cardboard pieces by making a series of spaces on it. They are then given or, better still, they collect over time as an ongoing class project, a vast mound of materials and pieces from their surroundings. Each inquiry team may have pieces of plastic wrappers, different colored papers from magazine and newspaper pages, small containers of everyday food powders and crystals such as coffee and salt, small but identifiable parts of plants, various small pieces of fabric, cut-outs from the packages of everyday items, and so on. The students are asked to build a discovery board by first spending some time just looking at all the objects closely with the viewer and discussing what they see with others in their inquiry teams. They are encouraged to explore and talk and-even draw and make notes if they wish. They are required, too, to look at their hands with the viewer, to examine the clothes they are wearing and perhaps even the hands and sleeves of others on the team.

After this exploration opportunity, the students focus on building a simple discovery board using the cardboard which they had received. Each child must try to find several of the "rubbish" every day objects that look different to their eye, but are quite similar within the detail of the easy-to-use 30x viewer. In the rows on the discovery board, the students glue down the objects they find in common. Later, boards can be exchanged from one team to another and the children must discover and describe what that person's board has in common from a micro point of view. There are numerous variations and an ongoing opportunity for the continued building of meaning among the students. This activity can spiral to become more complex, and the completed discovery boards can be part of an ongoing, portfolio-type assessment, as well as be displayed in the classroom to foster a more personalized learning environment.

A part of the Microcosmos Curriculum Guide, this building of microdiscovery boards allows students to visit another size. They are able to gradually build familiarity and appreciation of a foreign yet dominant view. They are able to discover and compare shapes within an inquiring, organizing context. Their creativity is encouraged, and they gain confidence in science skills without, of course, even thinking about it. In the earliest grades, the objective may simply be to have students recognize that all things, alive or not, are made up of smaller things-that there is always another story just beyond what we can see with our eyes. This message can help set the stage for other activities later in that grade and beyond. Most importantly, the micro-world becomes a vehicle for posing questions, observing closely, working within groups, playing detective, organizing thoughts and ideas, fostering fine motor skills, and taking pride in one's work.

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Excerpt from Chapter VIII: The Cell

Cell anatomy can be simulated, especially when part of the objective is to have students become familiar with that essential structure in all organisms, the membrane. Cellophane or clear baggies and trash bags make wonderful membranes. Small groups of students can work out a project to fill the bags with recycled materials that represent cell structures. They can create both eukaryotic and prokaryotic bags. They can even create separate bags for different kingdoms or domains of life.

For example, a cell from a fungus may contain more than one nuclei, given its dikaryotic nature, while a plant cell will feature inner bags with additional membranous structures that absorb light. These activities are appropriate at all levels through college, for cell detail and general expectations can be expanded at each higher grade levels. However, this "advanced" perspective we assign to students as they get older depends upon one's learning criteria. While a college freshman may be able to create a bag with defined, sophisticated detail and a good grasp of function, he/she may not nearly be as creative and imaginative as the fourth or fifth grader in design and description. Being aware of this allows us as teachers, particularly in the higher grades, to make students aware that we value curiosity and creativity, that science understanding and appreciation grows when the "child within us" is maintained and promoted in the curriculum as we get older.

This series of bag (membrane-bound) creations may be more helpful to student understanding and enthusiasm than conventional three-dimensional models from supply houses or even ones made by the students. The plastic bag approach allows for emphasis on the cell membrane. Most importantly, it fosters dramatically the non-static nature of the cell, for cell "contents" designed and arranged by the students intentionally or not will tend to move around inside the bag. The cell in this construction also allows viewing from several perspectives. The creations can be displayed in the classroom and be altered by the students as they accumulate new knowledge or ideas, much like an open-ended portfolio approach. This kind of cell activity connects well with bubble-making exercises in which students discover permeability, fluidity, and texture. Moreover, they can experiment with simple, simulated eukaryote-building (one bubble blown into a larger one creates interior "membranes," a central characteristic of eukaryotic cells).

Most students will not have the opportunity to use videomicroscopy and electron microscopes. Simulating cells through marbling art creations can help students access cells within an inner space perspective. These exercises help students visualize, create and duplicate cells and cell structures by dipping paper into mixtures of paints arranged on the surface of water. Part of the Microcosmos Curriculum Guide to Exploring Microbial Space, this activity stimulates students to become more familiar with cells within a fun context. Teachers have even had their students laminate, label, and display the simulations.

These activities at the start of a unit on cells help students of any age to become motivated to discover, more willing to read, and to explore a theme. It is important, however, to present and guide the activities within clear, strong criteria and values that have defined, scored outcomes. Otherwise, some students will not do their best, for they will see the activity as "too young."

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Excerpt from Chapter X: Biological Evolution

This microcosmic-based theme of phylogeny has great potential for students to construct new knowledge about evolution, and most importantly access a living example of the nature of science, with all its varying perspectives, different emphases, expert research, argumentation, skepticism, change and questioning. Projecting a viable learning scenario, a life science classroom could allow small groups of students to examine examples from the various kingdoms utilizing many skills including observation, measuring, recording, communication. Several different table areas have at least two representatives from each kingdom. Magnifying glasses, a microscope, selected sketch cards from the Microcosmos Microbingo activity, hand lenses, rulers, videotape, and other materials are provided at each table. No books, computers, or other information sources are available. On large easel paper or poster board, each group builds a series of characteristics which represent constructed groups of life they had observed. Groups operate on a no- or limited-knowledge base in that they do not refer to texts or even to recollections of past knowledge.

After a half hour or so, students in each group briefly present the kingdoms or domains they have constructed with some listed criteria and place the poster on the front board. They are then given books and materials that define and explain how scientists have defined the various kingdoms. Students highlight these actual characteristics of kingdoms on another poster paper. After another half hour or so, there is full group discussion. Group members express what skills they used in coming to the models they derived, referring to both posters. They discuss the following key questions: What are the differences between their models and the actual definitions of scientists? What accounts for the differences? What does this comparative process indicate about science? What does the microcosmos have to do with any of this?

Through this activity and the follow-up reflection, which the students had documented in their ongoing journal assignment, students learn that there are three major phases to science. One part substantially uses skills of observation, recording, collaborative discussion, speculation, and making simple measurements. The second phase requires the application of these skills with established technological tools and an accompanying knowledge base. The third phase is a time of reflection when students and the teacher look back at what they have experienced individually and within working groups. These cornerstones of science are an important discovery for students.

Students also recognize that groups of organisms in any of the accepted phylogenies are on a microcosmic level. Thus, they discover a further rationale for explorations of inner space. The teacher should of course collect all the ideas of the differences between the two posters. Students must feel that their ideas and questions are worthy and that science learning is not rooted in simple rights and wrongs.

Being developed at Microcosmos as "Kingdom Quest-Discovering the Microbial Basis of Evolutionary Groupings," this exploration has several key objectives that link well with standards-based reform:

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Excerpt from Chapter XII: Professional Development

If we focus simply on the Microcosmos curriculum at elementary, middle, and secondary levels, we see that the very nature of the explorations and their themes practically force an inquiry-based approach. For example, each exploration requires hands-on manipulation centered around questions that can in large part be developed or expanded by the students. These various constructions within the classroom, usually in small collaborative group formats, promote different levels of learning and developing meaning. The Microdiscovery board exploration serves as an example: On one level, students have a set of tasks before them, which they can adapt. These tasks require exploring, questioning and a variety of observation-based skills to fulfill them. They must handle objects and then design a display board based upon a theme. This exploratory phase immediately promotes inquiry. How the students derive the theme, through the use of a simple hand microviewer, is yet another level of learning. After a period of free-use to become familiar and appreciative of the instrument and how it operates, students must then examine at the 30 power level the objects provided and decide what kind of theme they want to create on their discovery boards. The parameters are such that this must occur at the new close-up perspective. At this point, the students build meaning from their observations of the inner space, a prelude to the next tier of inquiry construction which evolves as students later share what they have created.

Student groups and individuals question each other through microdiscovery board exchanges where they try to figure out the theme prepared by their partner students using the 30x viewer. The flow of the exploration is intimately inquiry-based. It is oriented to promoting skills, creativity, and collaboration. For professional development experiences-whether as part of a methods class during a teacher's first years of learning or after several years of regular classroom teaching-the modeling of such an activity is intrinsically valuable. This value can be made to spiral later by having the teachers discuss and develop an appropriate assessment tool for the activity and as well as have them reflect on it after they have actually facilitated it in a classroom setting with students. What is crucial is that the experience of stepping into a fundamentally unfamiliar view or perspective of the world around us is a direct, guiding vehicle for inquiry -a cornerstone of standards-based reform and mandatory within professional development thematic experiences.

Skill development actively advocated within the standards documents is a central premise of Microcosmos content and pedagogy. Microbial related learning experiences require the practice of key skills, including motor skills, reasoning, observation, description, writing, sketching, synthesizing information and ideas, and inferring. They also help counter passivity and promote the active learning so necessary to access science. Pond water life does not jump out of the water to appear before us; two dimensional photographs cannot come close to the feeling of cruising through inner space; the most common life forms are spread on us and on all our surroundings and can only be accessed through the opening of the mind to new experiences; we are connected to microbial-related events in distant time on earth and these can only be accessed through simulation and creative constructions. These and dozens of similar examples illustrate the potential power of inner space as a learning tool. Therefore, the sharing and modeling of activities and strategies in the inner space realm can have an important impact on the teacher's growth from several standards-related standpoints: methodology enhancement, pedagogical content knowledge, and teacher as a learner and risk-taker.

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998.

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