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Understanding an Ecosystem

No one lives in a vacuum, we might say, and the same is true of nature. Just as people need other people to get connected and learn to survive, so do other natural elements in the universe and on planet Earth. While it may be difficult for most of us to comprehend the universe with the naked eye, we can go out and study the world around us without the use of even a microscope as long as we have some idea of what we're looking for. Studying a microcosm, or smaller world of organic activity, can help us to understand larger principles and systems at work on a major scale.

As schoolchildren, we study the basic physical sciences, including biology, physics, chemistry, and geology. College students will learn even more about some of these topics in fulfilling the general education requirements for just about any diploma. Yet, because few of us study all the sciences at length, we often do not understand very much about the way the natural world works. That's why personal study of a nearby ecosystem may help to expand our knowledge base in useful ways.

Start by reading an introductory lesson on the type of system you want to study. It might be about a woodland area, a bog or marsh, a river or pond, or a plain or meadow. You could study a farmer's crop of corn or beans, or a neighbor's trickling stream. Wherever you look in the rural outdoors, you can find a mini-system of natural principles operating to support a variety of life forms. If you have kids or grandchildren, or teach school or children's church, you may even want to arrange a field trip for an hour or so to let them learn about nature the experiential way. Go over the basic guidelines for identifying an ecosystem and how the parts work together to create a system that supports living creatures and plants.

Choose a good-weather day for the expedition. If you plan to investigate a neighbor's property, get permission first. Be sure there are no safety hazards like swampland, ditches, or gas lines that someone could stumble over. Let everyone know the boundaries for the study project, along with an idea of what to look for. Then it might be a good idea to pair everyone in two's to keep anyone from wandering off or getting lost. Another advantage to twosomes is they can check their impressions with each other to clarify findings.

Have everyone describe the terrain, the climactic and environmental conditions, and the dominant weather cycles for the region. They can do this afterward in discussion or take notes while in the field. Then they should look for typical life forms in the area, including species and genus, if they know how to classify organisms. Otherwise, a simple list by common names is fine. They should at least be able to separate insects from mammals, and so on. Animal tracks can be used as evidence in lieu of seeing the actual creature, like deer, for example.

The next step is to find water, air, and food sources that support the living things. Applying known rules or principles to actual observations will provide a rich and personal learning experience. In the notes or via discussion, explain how everything in the area works together to support an environmental life chain. This type of activity makes a great family excursion or a fun hobby for an individual. Try it sometime to see whether you enjoy reading physical history in the great outdoors.

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