Mackintosh student shares nitrogen cycle diagram.

Students Enact Nitrogen Cycle as Atoms

By Beth Steklac, Littleton Middle Years Teacher

One of the best moments in a teacher’s day is sharing in learning that goes above and beyond the expectations of a lesson plan.  As an IB teacher, I am well aware that students learn best when they can construct their own learning.  However, as an engineer, I sometimes fall into the linear trap of imparting knowledge and expecting students to learn it! As I was developing lesson plans for science recently, I realized that it was time once again to teach the nitrogen cycle.  This understanding was a key element in our unit on sustainable agriculture and feeding the world.  Historically, I have handed the students a drawing of the nitrogen cycle, held a class discussion and moved on.  Frankly, students were bored and so was I!  It was time for a new approach.

I came across a game in which students took on the identity of a nitrogen atom and travelled from one form to another through the role of a die (  It was worth a shot!  At least then they might have a better understanding of the nitrogen cycle when I handed it out.  Fortunately for the students (and for me), I realized the fundamental flaw in my logic.  They didn’t need me to hand out a copy of the cycle.  17 students had just undertaken 17 different journeys as nitrogen atoms.  They knew enough to make their own cycle.

In groups these students came up with much more intricate and detailed depictions of the nitrogen cycle than any simple text book drawings.  Further, we had a chance to examine how substantially different renditions of the same idea could all be correct.  We moved on the next day to what I had considered to be the meat of the exercise, “How do humans impact the nitrogen cycle?”  Students took this idea to much deeper levels with a greater understanding of the complexities of the cycle and the numerous ways in which humans might disturb it.  I was bowled over by the depths that these gifted students could explore and reminded once again, that if given the opportunity, they will soar!