Ecosystem Interconnectedness with Flagstaff Junior Academy

August 26th marked the first Seeds of Stewardship outing of the 2021-2022 school year! In fact, it was the first outing we’ve gotten to do with a school group since the lockdown started in March 2020. It was wonderful to once again bring the classroom outdoors.

SoS instructors met Flagstaff Junior Academy fifth graders in Mrs. Chapman’s classroom for an introduction to the Arizona Trail, what we’d be doing this year, and how to be successful outdoor learners. Students packed their bags, and then we set out from the school to Observatory Mesa. As a safety precaution in light of the Delta variant, we decided to make our first two outings just a short walk from the school, eliminating the need to travel in vans to the trailhead.

Past Thorpe Park and the frisbee golf course, we were quickly immersed in ponderosa pines. Christine, SoS co-leader, helped students become grounded in nature, guiding them through sensory observations. Acquainted with the forest, we hiked up the Mars Hill Trail to a lovely nook bordered by downed trees, perfect for students to sit on during our lesson on ecosystems.

Students learned what an ecosystem is and identified that we live in a ponderosa pine forest ecosystem—the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world, actually! To get everyone thinking about how everything in an ecosystem is connected, we created our own mini ecosystems in the form of sundaes. Instructors dished up scoops of vanilla, chocolate, or swirl ice cream (different shades of soil), and then students were tasked with mindfully collecting toppings that represented living or nonliving things in an environment. The sundaes turned out beautifully, and students enjoyed making discoveries as they selected their toppings. Ecosystem sundaes craftily assembled, partners shared what living and nonliving things they found, and then everyone completed their worksheets, which asked students to draw and label how their toppings interacted in an ecosystem.

After snacking, we were fueled up to continue along the trail. After a while, we gathered to complete plant studies. During the lesson, students made detailed observations of a plant of their choice and later identified the species using field guides. As a big group, we toured some of the plants and learned more about the species’ features, medicinal properties, and roles in the ecosystem.

The morning was flying by, and it was time to turn back towards the classroom. We stopped to play two rounds of Camouflage, a fun hide and seek game that is great for re-centering the group’s attention and energy. We ended with a class wrap up, wherein students shared about something interesting they saw, what species they learned about, and how they would define an ecosystem. Students were asked to reflect on the questions, Are humans part of the ecosystem? If yes, what is our role in the ecosystem? Students had thoughtful responses, ranging from “yes because we’re animals” to “no because we destroy the ecosystem.” We concluded that, yes, we are part of the ecosystem! Sometimes people forget that we’re connected to everything in the environment—that’s part of why people at times feel like they’re better than or separate from elements of nature. We’re a part of it all, and our role in the ecosystem is up to us!