Decisions, decisions…

Year 10 and Energy Flow Through Eco-systems. Not an obviously exciting lesson, I grant, but one with scope for some entertainingly confrontational role play. After all, it’s a tricky decision, give up eating meat, or kill your babies….

We spend a couple of lessons establishing the basics. The Leaf Litter practical – identifying, counting and weighing the crawly denizens of the detrivore community – after which I collect and collate all their data for them to draw accurate pyramids of numbers and biomass.

I also show them the Flamingo/Fish Eagle/Lake Bogoria clip from Life of Birds, to emphasize the spectacular fall in numbers as you move up the food chain, from algae (gazillions) to flamingoes (one million) to fish eagles ( a few hundred). David (Attenborough) provides the necessary descriptors.

Because this is a really interesting question – what’s going on here?

The following PowerPoint (@Burnett 2005) gives a simplified breakdown of how this all might be quantified as well as a beginner’s guide to why the energy stored in, say, grass, does not all get converted into rabbit.

Energy loss in food chains

In the past, I’ve tried to make this more rigorous using owl pellet dissection – can they use the contents of an owl pellet to calculate the area that a pair of barn owls would require?

Energy Flow from Voles to Barn Owls

But it’s over elaborate and I don’t think it worked very well – they miss the wood for the trees.

In any case, having provided the necessary background, ideas and theory, I’m more interested some of the broader implications of this inexorable law of energy transfers. In particular, how should it inform our choice of food and what we do with available land.

I’ve been playing around with ideas for how to explore this through role play for quite a few years. Again, none of my previous efforts have quite worked. So, for example, I came up with a kind of Monopoly version, where they had a laminated version of a map

island map for role play lesson

that they had to divide up into vegetable and meat cultivation, and then collect food calories (based on their allocation) from another student playing the part of Gaia.

Instructions for desert island survivor game

Having established this, I added more and more students to the island, playing the part of shipwreck survivors/African refugees/rivals from a local school, forcing them to reallocate land use if everyone was going to get sufficient calories per day. It was quite good fun (important note: even if a lesson fails, your students will forgive you if they can see that you were making an effort), but, again, it was over-elaborate and they spent so much time trying to do the calculations that they missed the key point of the exercise.

This year, however, I think I finally cracked it. See what you think.

I send all but six of the students out of the lab. These six form three pairs, each of which has a 70cm x 140cm desk. Each desk represents the island on which that pair have been ship-wrecked. There are no other survivors. The island is a lush, tropical paradise, awash with orang utans and parrots and butterflies and orchids. But they’ve got to eat, so they need to clear land for cultivation.

They have a collection of green and red bits of square card – 10cmx10cm, 20cmx20cm, and 40cm x 40cm.

The small green card represents the area of land that would provide enough plant based food for one person to survive. So with two of them on the island, they need a minimum of two small green cards. The rest of the island is left untouched. It’s an immediately visual impression of land use.

But they may not want to be entirely vegetarian. Most of them will want to include meat in their diet. Thing is, though, if they want to eat meat, one small red card represents the area of land that would support sufficient animals to eat meat only once every 10 days. So if they want to eat meat every day, they need to clear ten times as much land. Suddenly the island is looking rather different, the orang utans are feeling a bit constricted.

At this point I go and collect six more students and allocate two to each “island”. Look! Two more shipwreck survivors! And by an amazing coincidence, they’re old school friends! But what are they going to do about food?

The original students have to explain the game to the new students (peer to peer learning!) and then they all need to discuss and decide how they’re going to carve up the island. It’s an interesting contrast. One table is made up of vegetarians and their island is still largely pristine. Another is occupied by unapologetic carnivores and is covered in large red cards. But everyone is still able to enjoy their preferred diet, even if the orang utans are only just hanging on.

And then they have children. The remaining students are allocated, 3 per table, as the offspring of the original settlers. Obviously their babies are beautiful and adorable but, ahem, how are you going to feed them?

At this point, things get heated. Because based on the premise of the game, the island is not big enough to support seven people eating meat every day…. And so, with the brutal and decisive certainty of teenagers, faced with a choice of cutting back on their meat intake, or discarding their babies, the babies are thrown into the sea…

At this point, the interesting discussion can start. Why does it take so much more land to sustain a meat based diet? No, it’s not because the animals need space to move around – as one student suggests, it’s because you’re putting the energy in the vegetation through another organism before eating it. As 90% is going to be lost, you need 10x as much land.

This also explains why meat is so much more expensive than bread.

And it means how we decide to utilise farmland has profound ethical implications. Should we, for example, be clearing rainforest to grow cows/grow food for cows, just so rich people can eat beef every day?

And would any of them be willing to make any compromises to their diet (such as eating meat a few times a week, rather than every day) if it could contribute to conserving biodiversity, or using the same land to feed more people? Isn’t it immoral to eat meat in a world where so many people are starving?

If you like a feisty argument in your classroom, it works a treat!

Outline and questions here: Ship wrecked on a desert island energy flow June 2017 (1)




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