Teaching about Biodiversity
ERIC Identifier: ED433197
Publication Date: 1998-12-00
Author: Haury, David L.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Through evolutionary processes, the miracle of life has given rise to a rich tapestry of
biological diversity; or biodiversity. There are three aspects of biodiversity:
During earth's history, life has proliferated and diversified, with species filling the myriad niches of ecosystems.
Through the many climatic and structural changes of a dynamic earth, life continued to
adjust and prosper. Today there are approximately 1.4 million known species (Wilson,
1992, p. 133) with over five million yet to be identified by conservative estimates, living
everywhere from the boiling waters of undersea vents to the frozen Antarctic.
- genetic diversity within species that enables organisms to evolve and adapt to new conditions,
- species diversity that refers to the number and kind of organisms distributed within an ecosystem, and
- ecosystem diversity that refers to the variety of habitats and communities interacting in complex relationships.
Several times in the past-five times, apparently-extinctions occurred on vast scales, with
the majority of life forms dying out. These extinction events seem to have been the
result of large-scale forces, from shifts of the continental plates to the impact of
meteorites and volcanic activity. But the products and patterns of evolution have been
repeated each time, with the proportionally few survivors diversifying over millions of
years and replenishing the earth, once with reptiles as the dominant animal form, and
now with mammals as the dominant form.
As miraculous as the tenacity of life seems to be, however, it is sobering to realize that
we seem to be in the midst of the sixth great period of extinction, and we seem to be
causing it. What has previously been caused by plate tectonics, volcanoes, meteors,
and other forces of nature is now being caused by the rapid destruction of habitats,
depletion of resources, and the ecological mixing of incompatible species. Currently,
more than 10,000 species become extinct each year (California Academy of Sciences Biodiversity Resource Center),
and approximately 25% of all mammals seem to be heading toward extinction (Tuxill,
1998, p. 21). The good news is that life will surely survive this most recent threat, but
the bad news is that it will be millions of years before the next assemblage of diverse
species rule the land, air, and sea. This is a troubling story that must be told in powerful
ways in schools, so citizens who have a concern for the biological future can act with
BIODIVERSITY IN THE SCIENCE CURRICULUM
- GRADES 5-12: DIVERSITY AND ADAPTATIONS
- Millions of species of animals, plants, and microorganisms are alive today. Although
different species might look dissimilar, the unity among organisms becomes apparent
from an analysis of internal structures, the similarity of their chemical processes, and
the evidence of common ancestry.
- Biological evolution accounts for the diversity of species developed through gradual
processes over many generations. Species acquire many of their unique characteristics
through biological adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring
variations in populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures,
behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular
- Extinction of a species occurs when the environment changes and the adaptive
characteristics of a species are insufficient to allow its survival. Fossils indicate that
many organisms that lived long ago are extinct. Extinction of species is common; most
of the species that have lived on the earth no longer exist.
GRADES 9-12: BIOLOGICAL EVOLUTION
BEYOND THE STANDARDS
- The great diversity of organisms is the result of more than 3.5 billion years of evolution
that has filled every available niche with life forms.
- Natural selection and its evolutionary consequences provide a scientific explanation for
the fossil record of ancient life forms, as well as for the striking molecular similarities
observed among the diverse species of living organisms.
- The millions of different species of plants, animals, and microorganisms that live on
earth today are related by descent from common ancestors.
- Biological classifications are based on how organisms are related. Organisms are
classified into a hierarchy of groups and subgroups based on similarities which reflect
their evolutionary relationships. Species is the most fundamental unit of classification.
Though the national standards and other guidelines present biodiversity in the
traditional way as an important topic in the life sciences, they do not directly address the
importance of biodiversity from either an ecological point of view or quality of life
perspective. The concept of biodiversity takes on increased importance and meaning
when we think of the many reasons to be concerned about the current threats to
biodiversity. As St. Antoine and Runk (1996) point out, it is important to conserve the
diversity of life for medical and economic reasons. It is also important to protect the
diversity of life because it helps maintain important ecological functions, such as oxygen
production, pollination, and flood control, which in turn help support all life on Earth. It
has even been suggested that the current biodiversity crisis may lead to the disruption
and degradation of several basic processes of evolution (Myers, 1996).
Biodiversity, then, is more than a biology or science topic. It is a concept that cuts
across disciplinary boundaries, and it is an environmental issue with board ramifications
for the quality of human life. Unfortunately, people seem to lack knowledge about
biodiversity, and they fail to perceive a link between species preservation and improved
quality of life for humans (Foster-Turley, 1996, p.5).
Bryant has identified
several benefits of biodiversity conservation, including:
It seems evident from reviewing some of the benefits of conserving biodiversity that
biodiversity education must go beyond an academic study of biological relationships,
structural and functional diversity, and the processes of evolution and extinction. It will
become increasingly important for humans to consider the impact of their activities on
biodiversity, and to learn ways of slowing the increasing rates of extinction. Beyond
gaining an understanding and appreciation of the diversity of living organisms, students
must come to understand the connections between biodiversity and our economy,
ecological sustainability, environmental quality, and the quality of life. There are issues
to study, problems to solve, and decisions to make that require a deepened
understanding of biodiversity, and teachers will need to seek out sources of information
and activities to engage students with the concept.
- Potential for broadening our food supplies by developing new crop plants, fish supplies,
and animal sources.
- Increased use of biological control agents using natural enemies to control pests.
- Potential sources of genes to improve quality, resistance, and vigor of conventional
crops through hybridization and genetic engineering.
- Increased use of natural products for medicines, drugs, and poisons.
- Recognition of environmental services performed by wild organisms, including
pollination, biodegradation, soil aeration, fertilization, gas exchanges, and water
- Sources of warning signs to offset the lack of health screening tests for many
chemicals and pollutants.
- Provision of model systems for basic scientific research.
- Aesthetic value of interesting wildlife and plantlife.
- Future benefits yet to be determined.
BIODIVERSITY EDUCATION MATERIALS
A biodiversity education framework has been proposed by Braus and Champeau
(1994), and a biodiversity primer has been published by Braus (1994). The primer
includes information on the importance of biodiversity to humans, and is suitable for
middle school and high school students. A related poster and activity guide is also
available (Braus & O'Reilly, 1994).
An extensive review of outstanding biodiversity curricula, multimedia resources, and
other educational materials has been produced by the North American Association for
Environmental Education (Pitman, Braus, & Asato, 1998). The reviewed materials were
examined by teams of teachers, content specialists, and environmental educators, and
each item is rated on the basis of six criteria.
For teachers and class groups able to take excursions, the National Park Service (NPS,
1990) developed an environmental education curriculum that focuses on biodiversity.
Each of the ten units focuses on a specific concept relating to biodiversity, and each unit
combines classroom activities with activities for use in a park area.
A video and companion guide have been produced by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF,
1995). The guide provides summaries of the video segments, and four separate
sections focus on the following:
WORLD WIDE WEB RESOURCES
- What is biodiversity?
- Why is biodiversity important?
- Why are we losing biodiversity?
- What are we doing about the loss of biodiversity?
Biodiversity and Conservation - A hypertext book by P. J. Bryant. The chapters on " Global patterns of biodiversity" and "Values of biodiversity" seem particularly relevant.
The Virtual Library of Ecology, Biodiversity, and the Environment - Serves as a gateway to many other websites related to biodiversity.
Biodiversity and Biological Connections Web Server - Serves as a gateway to extensive lists of websites providing information about specific organisms, professional groups, and other resources.
Hall of Biodiversity - Resources associated with the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History.
The Tree of Life - The gateway to an extensive, distributed Internet project with information about biodiversity.
Forests and Biodiversity - This page is associated with the World Resources Institute.
Forests and Biodiversity Links - An extensive collection of links categorized into "biodiversity," "sustainable forestry," and many other topics.
World Resources Institute: Biodiversity - An extensive collection of sites relating to biodiversity.
National Biodiversity Profiles - Enables users to search for biodiversity information and highlights for specific countries.
EE-Link Endangered Species - Provides access to images, policies, information, links, and other resources.
National GAP Analysis Program - A USGS site on A Geographic Approach to Planning for Biological Diversity.
Biodiversity Programs - Describes various biodiversity programs of the Smithsonian Institution.
Environment Australia: Biodiversity Group - Provides access to publications, programs, and information servers.
This digest was funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S.
Department of Education under contract no. R1-93002013. Opinions expressed in this
Digest do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI, or the Department of
Education. This Digest is in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.
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Myers, N. (1996). The biodiversity crisis and the future of evolution. "The Environmentalist," 16, 37-47.
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