ERIC Identifier: ED433197 Publication Date: 1998-12-00
Author: Haury, David L. Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Teaching about Biodiversity. ERIC Digest.
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: (a) genetic diversity within species that enables organisms to
evolve and adapt to new conditions, (b) species diversity that refers to the
number and kind of organisms distributed within an ecosystem, and (c) ecosystem
diversity that refers to the variety of habitats and communities interacting in
complex relationships. 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.
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
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,
http://web.calacademy.org/research/library/biodiv.htm), 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 understanding.
BIODIVERSITY IN THE SCIENCE CURRICULUM
as a key topic in several science education reform documents. Within biology
programs, biodiversity is characterized as the product of evolution and has been
identified as an essential topic of study for high school, 2-year college, and
4-year college courses (BSCS, 1993, p. 72). The national science education
standards include the following principles relating to biodiversity:
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 environment.
*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
9-12: BIOLOGICAL EVOLUTION
*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
*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.
BEYOND THE STANDARDS
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,
Bryant (http://darwin.bio.uci.edu/~sustain/bio65/lec07/b65lec07.htm) has
identified several benefits of biodiversity conservation, including:
*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
*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
*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.
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.
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
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:
*What is biodiversity?
*Why is biodiversity important?
*Why are we losing biodiversity?
*What are we doing about the loss of biodiversity?
Please note that this site is privately owned and is in no way related
to any Federal agency or ERIC unit. Further, this site is using a
privately owned and located server. This is NOT a government sponsored
or government sanctioned site. ERIC is a Service Mark of the U.S. Government.
This site exists to provide the text of the public domain ERIC Documents
previously produced by ERIC. No new content will ever appear here
that would in any way challenge the ERIC Service Mark of the U.S. Government.