A Prairie Extension


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Bombus HomePage

OVERVIEW: This extension is designed to engage the student in a practical investigation of the importance of a native species. The bumblebees (Bombus species) are native to Illinois. Furthermore, they are the exclusive pollinators of several rare and endangered plant species. Scientists and other Bombus observers are concerned about environmental factors that may impact the bumblebee. Atmospheric quality, the introduction of the domestic honeybee, and continued encroachment of the human population into what were once open meadows and prairies all can provide a negative influence on the Bombus species.

Without the bumblebees, we would lose potentially valuable flora and further limit the gene pool. Within the remnants of tallgrass prairie there may be answers to some of the most puzzling questions of the medical community. Since the bumblebee is integral to the success of many plants, a negative influence on the Bombus species could be catastrophic!

Placing the students in the role of "student researcher" is a proven hook for engaged learning. In this context, students are commissioned with the task of inquiry. What may be the problem? How do we know it is a problem? What can we do about the problem? As the learners design the means by which they answer these questions, they become immersed in the process. Content level learning is not sacrificed. Students, in fact, tend to explore relevant topics with such zeal that retention is multiplied.

The Problem Based Learning (PBL) format is merely a suggestion. Educators not yet trained or comfortable with that mode are encouraged to adapt as necessary. Allow for "open-ended" investigation, however, as students pursue the topic. Rather than allowing this to become a "report on bees," students may wish to take off on tangents such as the role of bumblebees in the pollination of medicinal and/or endangered plants, effects of pesticides and herbicides on the bumblebee population, competition with domestic honeybees, identification of indigenous species* and the subsequent development of a database.

In a Problem Based Learning model, students are required to establish their interpretation of the problem by brainstorming what they know, what they hope to discover, and what they have learned. In their journey, students will select a focus for their investigations that MAY require a fair amount of direction from the teacher. Care must be taken by the teacher to function as a facilitator of learning rather than as a provider of information. Novice PBL learners often need to be "refocused." As the students develop their research designs, care must be taken to keep the model simple. Even uncomplicated inquiries can generate amazingly large quantities of data which can become unwieldy.

Opportunities for hands on experimentation should not be discouraged. For example, a student project design may lead the learner to questions about air or water quality and its affect of bumblebees. How might you as the teacher help the student answer these questions? The toughest part of the teacher's job may be to predict student needs and to plan strategies for extended learning.

The benefit derived from PBL is well worth the illusion of organized chaos in the classroom. Self directed, engaged learners will be active - MOBILE and TALKING! The conversations and actions will be productive, however! The key is a message of high expectation projected by the teacher to the learner! Coupled with a sense of ownership in the learning process felt by the student, tremendous outcomes can be expected.

A detailed, step by step plan for instruction is NOT part of this extension. The focus is on the teacher as facilitator for learning rather than "imparter of knowledge" throughout this document. Since every situation is unique, the teacher has the power to adapt, modify, and create as necessary.

Bombus species vary from place to place. Species foraging in northern Illinois may not be present in southern Illinois. The sketches included in this tangent represent species documented on site at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Individual state natural history surveys, state colleges and universities, and the US Department of Agriculture may be able to provide additional information for your site.

GRADE LEVEL: Adaptable to any level, but suggested for grades 7 - 12.




It has been proven that insects are absolutely essential for the survival of many plants. While wind, water, and other animals all play a role in pollination, the power of the insects in this process is phenomenal! Bumblebees (Bombus species) are essential for the pollination of a variety of prairie plants. As the only native bee, bumblebees have been doing their job for thousands of years. Currently, our ecosystems are becoming more disturbed, and scientists are concerned about the status of the bumblebee population. You are being asked to design a study that may help determine factors that could impact the bumblebee OR may predict the consequences of a reduced bumblebee population.

Carefully discuss what you already know, determine the factor upon which you will need to focus, research your topic, observe the insects in action, and organize your data in the form of a presentation to be delivered to the class. YOUR DATA WILL BE PASSED ON TO ENVIRONMENTAL BIOLOGISTS FOR THEIR CONSIDERATION.

Students allowed to project their studies into a realm of reality often become engaged in the process more readily than those tethered to a textbook. An investigation such as this appeals to the desire of most kids to "make a difference" in their world. Currently, educators are bombarded with frightening statistics surrounding the destruction of the rainforest, a situation we must all recognize and appreciate. Few native Illinoians, however, are aware of the fact that the once 40,000 square miles of virgin prairie in this state alone has been reduced to less than 4! We have at our doorstep a vanishing ecosystem that has simply slipped away with little fanfare. Given the opportunity to provide vital data to help ensure the maintenance of the little prairie that remains, students will, conceivably, address the challenge seriously!


I would like to take this opportunity to thank the members of the Lederman Science Education Center Staff for their never tiring endeavor of providing quality learning experiences for students of all ages. The opportunities and the education I have found through my experiences at Fermilab have been exemplary. I would also like to thank Dr. Rod Walton, Director of Environment, Safety and Health at Fermilab who provided the resources and encouragment to tackle my initial Bombus study, and Liz Quigg, educational software designer at Fermilab, who provided support and suggestions for this project.


Author: Patricia Franzen, Madison Junior High School, Naperville,Illinois.
Handbook of Engaged Learning Projects sponsored by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Education Office and Friends of Fermilab. Funded by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL).
Created: July 1, 1996 - Updated: July 24, 1996