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1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences



Phil Parfitt and Douglas G. Raney
Ecological Citizenship
The Chicago Academy of Sciences
2001 N. Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60614


Ecological citizenship is an environmental education project designed for he urban environment involving the participation of students, parents, teachers, and the community. The Eco-Cit program uses "hands-on" science lessons to teach students about environmental issues, and then allows the students to design and implement action projects that will positively impact the environment of their community. In an urban setting, it is often very difficult to teach students about nature. In most cases, it may be impossible for the students to visit a "real" prairie or other natural site. Therefore, other methods must be employed. Ecological Citizenship has developed a method for growing and observing prairie plants, using two liter soda bottles. The two liter bottle terrariums are low maintenanceand "self-watering", allowing the students the chance to observe the water cycle. The prairie terrariums are also very versatile: they can be used in a classroom to discuss plant structure and growth, using native Illinois plants, and can be used anytime during the year, regardless of the season.


"EcoCit" is an environmental education project designed for the urban environment involving the participation of students, parents, teachers, and the community. The EcoCit program involves multidisciplinary environmental education dealing with current environmental issues, using modelling/coaching techniques and other strategies for the urban classroom. Students learn about environmental issues, then they design and implement action projects that will positively impact the environment of their community. The EcoCit project was funded for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1993, by the EPA. The program is a unique combination of programs:

  • It is an urban education program taught in urban classrooms for underserved students. During 1992, the EcoCit program worked with 160 teachers and 3800 students in the inner city. The students represented were 73% AfricanAmerican; 15% Hispanic; 5% Caucasian; 3% Asian American; 2% Native American; 2% Other.
  • The teaching model on which the program is based is on the Hungerford "Issues, Knowledge, Action" model, a proven education technique that centers on hands-on learning.
  • Peer teaching and coaching in the classroom for the teacher, is employed by all EcoCit instructors throughout the program.
  • Through Environmental Issues Forum (EIF); an independent but complementary teacher training program at the academy, teachers are offered professional development in graduatel evel courses covering major, current environmental issues in water and air quality, land use, and solid waste and recycling.
  • School faculty and principals participate in the program, lending support and expertise. They become actively involved in teacher training and community action projects.
  • Parent and community involvement adds support for the children's education. EcoCit is a community program, including all aspects of the community. Workshops are held for parents on such topics as Science Fairs, cooperative learning, and science so parents are better equipped to relate to and aid in their child's education. Parents also play an active role in the planning, organization, and completion of action projects and the culminating activity: The ECOFAIR.
  • A community environmental project is created.


EcoCit provides a model and curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade classrooms, and the program in the schools is the base for a community awareness, education, and action strategy. It provides students with instruction in their own classrooms and community. The program fosters the student's exploration of their own environment and they experience that learning can be fun, exciting, and within their realm of capability.

The primary goal for students is to provide them with skills that enable them to become lifelong learners. Students receive positive, effective environmental education which results in knowledge and skill achievement.

The primary goal for teachers is to empower them to extend and increase the frequency of their environmental teaching and improve the level of instruction. The EcoCit project aims at producing changes in teacher's attitudes and behavior with the resulting impact of these changes contributing to increased student achievement and environmental action within their community.

The primary goal for the school and/or neighborhood community is to develop or evolve a "community action program" throughout the year and then hold an environmental fair [ECOFAIR] as the culminating event at the end of the school year. There are many types of action projects that a community can initiate. Projects might include recycling programs, tree or flower planting, school or park cleanup, to something as simple as a letter writing campaign. The important component here is that the "community" chooses its own project. This process empowers the community to set its own goals, thus creating ownership for the programs, so that they will be continued year after year.

Presently, the program is working with a four school community surrounding Malcolm X College, in Chicago, IL. The four schools include Skinner, Brown, Jackson, and Galileo Schools. The success of the project depends upon the ongoing cooperation between students, teachers, school officials, neighborhood and city administration, and the Academy.

At the heart of the EcoCit project is a K8 curriculum designed for the urban environment. The framework offers a wide range of issues and topics using hands-on, process oriented, inquiry activities in cooperative group settings to develop process skills. In each EcoCit unit students actively make observations, develop questions, form hypotheses, collect data, and draw conclusions about their everyday environmental impacts. In doing so, they begin to understand the delicate balance that exists between all the living things in their neighborhood including themselves. Each grade focuses on an issue of high priority and the teaching method encourages students to identify the issues of greatest importance to their own community.

Sense of Wonder: Kindergarten

In this grade level, students develop an appreciation for natural things, by observing the daily cycles of nature in their neighborhood. Through observation, evaluation and experimentation, they become familiar with the needs and wants of a community and its individuals.

Greening the Neighborhood: Grade 1

Plants are an important part of any community. In this program, students discover plants: Their basic structures, needs, life cycles, and how humans coexist with plants in the natural community of their neighborhood.

Animal Neighbors: Grade 2

In this grade level, students develop an understanding of animals, while observing adaptations that animals possess to compete for limited natural resources. They also learn how humans coexist with animals in the natural community of the neighborhood, and discover what they can do to create a more welcome habitat for neighborhood wildlife.

Living Lightly in Your Neighborhood: Grade 3

Exploring one's "neighborhood" is the theme for this grade level. Students observe how humans affect and coexist with the natural environment. On discovery walks, the students observe and identify local plants and animals and investigate their needs.

Neighborhood Communities: Grade 4

In this program, students discover the delicate balance between their natural community and human needs. Students learn about the various cycles and relationships within a community, by observing decomposition, soil, seed germination, and plant and animal relationships. The students also discuss and implement projects that improve their neighborhood communities.

Precious Water: Grade 5

How does the water cycle work? In this grade level, students perform experiments with water to gain an understanding of this very important phenomenon. Students learn how human activity disrupts the cycle and predict the effects of a water cycle out of balance. Students also discover and utilize ways to conserve this vital resource.

Acid Rain: Grade 6

Air pollution affects everyone. In this program, students conduct experiments to determine air quality and will discover that air pollution is the major cause of acid rain. The students experiment with acids and bases and, through experimentation, discover the effects of acid rain on the natural community.

Energy Use: Grade 7

In this grade level, students experiment to discover the many different forms of energy and how humans use that energy. They learn the importance of energy conservation and what can be done individually, locally, and globally to conserve limited natural resources.

Solid Waste: Grade 8

Increased consumption contributes to the solid waste crisis. In this program, students discover that things just can’t be thrown away, because there is no “away”. The students experiment with various packaging materials to find ways to package items in the most environmentally friendly way and learn to identify items that can be recycled, reused, and/or reduced.


In an urban environment, it is often very difficult to teach students about nature. In most cases, it may be impossible for students to visit a prairie or other natural site. Therefore, other methods must be employed. Ecological Citizenship has developed a method for growing and observing prairie plants, using 2 liter soda bottles.

The EcoCit 2 liter bottle terrariums are based upon the "Bottle Biology" curriculum developed by the University of Wisconsin: Madison, and are used in the 4th grade program Neighborhood Communities. In this grade, students learn about the various cycles and relationships within a ecosystem or community, using the 2 liter bottle terrariums as self-contained, miniature communities or "Ecoariums".

Many different plants can be used and grown in the Ecoariums, but we have taken the idea and added one unique component. We have found that the Ecoariums can be use to germinate and raise prairie grasses and forbs.

To create an Ecoarium, the following tools and materials will be necessary:

  • A 2 liter, plastic soda bottle rinsed clean.
  • An exacto knife and/or scissors.
  • A small lump of modeling clay (plasticine clay will do).
  • Approximately 12 cups of sand, gravel, or charcoal.
  • 46 cups of soil (mixed for appropriate plant species or desired ecosystem. Example desert = sandy soil).

An Ecoarium can be created using the following procedures:

  • Using a standard 2 liter, plastic soda bottle, first remove the label then the base from the bottle [running hot water over the label and base can help with removal].
  • Cut the top of the bottle off approximately 7 to 8 centimeters from the top of the bottle, just above where the bottle neck begins to taper.
  • Next, plug all holes in the removed base with clay to avoid leakage.
  • Place into the base approximately 10 centimeters of gravel, sand, or charcoal. This very porous layer will drain and collect water, preventing the soil from becoming waterlogged.
  • Add prepared soil to the base, about 12 centimeters from the rim of the base. 
  • You are now ready to add the prairie plants seeds or seedlings. If you are planting seeds, scatter the seeds in the base evenly, then cover with a thin layer (a few millimeters) of soil or follow the directions for planting the seeds of specific species of prairie plants: They are not all the same! Seedlings can be planted by making a small depression in the soil and then placing the prairie seedling into the depression in the form of a "plug". Carefully fill in with soil around the edges of the plug.
  • Water the seeds or seedlings. If seeds were planted, you may want to use a spray bottle to carefully add water to the soil, without disturbing the seeds. Do not over water: One to two cups is all that is needed.
  • Lastly, turn the bottle, which had the top removed, upside down, and place gently into the base to create a domed Ecoarium. Open the lid only if there is to much water building up on the sides of the dome, otherwise your prairie seeds or seedling will survive without your help.

Why do we use the Ecoariums in the EcoCit program? First, they are easy to make. Students love to make them, and by using native Illinois prairie plants, they learn about an important part of Illinois history. 

The Ecoariums are also very easy to maintain. They basically take care of themselves. Placed in or near a window, out of direct sunlight, the Ecoariums are "self-watering". In the classroom this can lead to wonderful discussions of the water cycle.

Ecoariums are also very versatile. They can be used as a germination "chamber" for prairie seeds and can also be used to start young seedlings, allowing them to grow until they are large enough to be transplanted in the form of a plug. The terrariums can also be used as a great instructional tool for teaching plant anatomy and growth. 

They also can be used to observe and compare species of plants and different "types" of ecosystems or biomes. By using different kinds of soils, plants, lighting conditions, water amounts....many different situations can be created such as a:

  • Prairie, savanna or grassland.
  • Desert.
  • "Tropical rainforest".
  • Conifer or deciduous forest.
  • EcoColumn: Created by stacking 2 liter, plastic bottles together; Can create many of the above ecosystems in a one columnt ype arrangement.

Another advantage is that in the construction of the Ecoariums the students use recycled materials; materials that they often throwaway into the garbage. This can, in the classroom, lead to discussions on the "3 R's"; recycling, reusing, and reducing.

One of the biggest advantages to using the Ecoariums in a classroom is that they can be created and used at anytime during the year. A classroom can take a "trip" to a prairie, at anytime, regardless of the outside environment.


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