Lesson 1

Inventory Your Environment



By taking a field trip on their school grounds (or other appropriate area outdoors), students will use observation skills to inventory their environment - its plants, animals, physical features and climate. Using collected samples, recorded notes, sketches and photographs, students will identify items and create their own field guide.


Content Standards Addressed:
Common Core State Standards
  • Plastic containers, plastic and paper bags.                                                                
  • Field Books (reproducible).
  • Pencils.
  • Magnifying glasses (optional).
  • Small plastic jars.
  • Polaroid or digital camera (optional).
  • Assorted field guides for your area.
  • Binoculars (provided).
  • Rulers and a measuring tape.
  • Index cards or Post-It notes.
Information Resources:
  • Published field guides include information about birds, mammals, wildflowers, weeds, trees, shrubs, insects, reptiles, amphibians, rocks, minerals, etc. (Peterson's, Golden, Audubon, and Strokes field guide series are all excellent for this purpose.)
  • Regional climate maps are available in the "Climate" section of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website (http://www.noaa.gov).



A creature's "environment" is its physical, chemical and biological (and for humans, cultural) surroundings, including air, water, soil, plants, people and animals. Each of these elements has an effect on the other. In addition, your environment has a location (a physical place) and a climate, the typical weather conditions of that place, including wind, rain, snow and temperature.

By conducting an inventory of their environment, students will sharpen their observation skills, learn simple field data collection techniques and gain a basic understanding of diversity and interconnectedness. This activity will build a basis for discussing more complex concepts such as ecosystems, adaptation and natural resources.

By keeping their own Field Books, students will be encouraged to develop the habit of looking at the environment and asking questions about what they observe.




Before heading out, make sure the students are informed of the trip in advance and secure parental permission, if applicable. Discuss proper dress for the field trip and appropriate behavior in the outdoors.

Scout a location nearby that provides a variety of plants and animals for the excursion. If the school grounds do not offer ideal conditions, consider taking the students to a nearby park or outdoor recreation area. Convey the excitement of exploring the environment before you head out.

"There are more critters out there sharing the environment with us than we think! It takes sharp eyes to scope them out and patience to record them. Our goal is to do as complete an inventory of this patch of our environment as we possibly can. We'll have to work together to do it."

Explain the purpose and use of their Field Books. If you are using cameras or binoculars, coach students in their use.


In the Field:

To conduct as complete an inventory as possible, work in teams of four to six students. Divide the area to be inventoried into sections - one for each team. Half of the team members should record plants and fungi. Half should record animals (mammals, birds, insects, amphibians and reptiles).

After arriving on site, but before beginning the inventory, record the nonliving features of the environment, as well as the time of day, season and weather. Ask:

  • What is the terrain like?
  • What is the general enviroment type? (Forest, field? Is there water present? Is it standing or moving?)
  • What do the rocks look like - their color, size, shape and texture?
  • What is the soil like? Are there any insects or worms in the soil?

Each team's goal is to record as much information about as many different plants and animals (species, for example, red maple, song sparrow, gray squirrel) as they find in their survey section. Later, they will try to identify each species, so they should describe their specimen as completely as possible with words, visuals (by drawing, mapping or photographing) or measurements. Include characteristics  like color, height or size, or physical features (six legs). Once a team has recorded a species in one of their Field Books, it doesn't have to be recorded again, but a count should be kept of how many were seen.

Students may collect live bugs or leaves from the ground, but stress the importance of not picking living plants and returning living things promptly to their natural habitat when finished observing them. Better yet, leave the environment as you found it, and take only pictures and observations.

Even if animals are not present during the inventory (most will take shelter to avoid humans), what evidence can be found that animals have been there? What birds or insects can be observed? How are they behaving? Use magnifying glasses and binoculars to look, if necessary.


Back in the Classroom:

Back in the classrom, students will create their own "Field Guide to [location]." This is an excellent chance for students to develop their technology skills by using desktop publishing or web authoring software to create a print or web-based field guide. If technology isn't an option for your group, use plain sheets of paper and have students draw illustrations (or attach photographs).

Using a variety of field guides, have students try to identify as many of the specimens they inventories as possible. Ask them to write the name of each species of plant and animal they identified on an index card or Post-It note.

Using a published field guide as a model, have students categorize their specimens into broad categories - trees, shrubs, plants, birds, insects, mammals, etc. Assign each category to a group of three to four students who will prepare that section of the field guide. Each species should have its own page in the field guide with a drawing or photo and as much information about the species as possible. Estimate how common the species is by tallying how many individuals of the species each team found during the inventory.

The class may work together to write an introduction to their field guide, including its location, its climate (use U.S. Climate Zone maps) and its physical features.

Note: This activity can be done over the course of the year in difference seasons. If the field guide is first constructed in the fall, have the class take their guide back to their location in the winter, then in the spring. Can they still identify the items in their field guide? What has changed? Are there new features (such as flowers in the spring) that should be noted in their descriptions?