Teaching the nitrogen cycle and human health interactions

Audrey Rule, SUNY Oswego and Margaret Townsend, Kansas Geological Survey
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This activity uses objects, pictures, and text in a matching game to define the nitrogen cycle and the environmental and human health impacts of nitrogen. The game can be used to associate useful and detrimental effects of the nitrogen cycle on the human and natural environment. Students write nitrogen cycle poetry as a method to emphasize concepts learned in the unit.

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Program tested with 6th and 9th graders and preservice education college students. Testing showed most improvement with the 9th grade and college level students.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

1. Know about cycles - water cycle or rock cycle so the concept is not entirely new.
2. Have some knowledge of what nitrogen is (an essential element for life and where it comes from).
3. Have ability to match ideas with visual pictures.
4. Have conceptual idea of how a cycle is conveyed on paper.
5. Have been exposed to poetry. The type of poetry is not as important as the idea of rhyming and description of a concept in a minimum number of words.

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity is used in the junior high and high school curriculum in the context of cycles, human health, or environmental issues. It can be a stand-alone exercise or as part of a sequence of activities.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

1. Understanding the nitrogen cycle and the components that fit into that cycle.
2. Understanding the impacts of excess nitrogen on the environment.
3. Learning the useful role of nitrogen in terms of human needs and environmental survival.
4. Learning sources of nitrogen from both natural and human resources.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

1. Synthesis of ideas to form the nitrogen cycle from the matching components.
2. Use of language through poetry to define a scientific concept
3. Learn the components of the nitrogen cycle and the resulting interrelationships.

Other skills goals for this activity

1. Writing poetry to reinforce concepts learned in the exercise.
2. Using the web to search for information on the nitrogen cycle.

Description of the activity/assignment

Before engaging in lessons, students attempt to draw a diagram of a nitrogen cycle and add as many components as they can. This allows them to self-assess (and the teacher to assess) what they know about the nitrogen cycle.

Students research some of the nitrogen cycle components online at various websites or read printouts from websites provided by the teacher. They choose three or four facts of interest about their component and report to the rest of the class.

Each small group of students is given a set of materials including 20 objects, 20 picture-cards, 20 nitrogen cycle component explanation cards, 20 title cards for each nitrogen cycle component, heading cards for different environments such as the atmosphere, soil, water, etc., and many small arrows. The students work together to pair each object with its corresponding title card, description card, and picture card. Then these are all arranged to form a possible nitrogen cycle with various components clustered around heading cards and arrows used to show movement of nitrogen from one object to another.

Students then write humorous (limerick, couplet) poems or more serious poems (haiku) or structured poems (cinquain, diamante) to tell several facts about a component of the nitrogen cycle. They share their poems with the class.

Students may also engage in experiments with nitrogen fertilizer.

Determining whether students have met the goals

A multiple choice—short response test can be used to determine the amount of information students retain about the various components of the nitrogen cycle. Additionally, students should sketch the nitrogen cycle arrangements they make and can sketch one from memory as an assessment of what they learned.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Townsend, M. A., Rule, A. C., Meyer, M .A. and Dockstader, C. J., 2007, Teaching the Nitrogen Cycle and Human Health Interactions: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 55, no. 2, March, p. 158-168. (not on-line until 2008)

Harman, P.E. and Rule, A.C., 2006, High-school students' mnemonic devices for Mohs hardness scale: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 54, no. 1, p. 69-73 http://www.nagt.org/files/nagt/jge/abstracts/rule-v54n1.v2.pdf

Rule, A. C., 2003, The Rhyming Peg Mnemonic Device Applied to Learning the Mohs Scale of Hardness: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 51, no. 5, p. 465-473. http://www.nagt.org/files/nagt/jge/abstracts/Rule_v51n5.pdf

Rule, A.C., Carnicelli, L.A., and Kane, S.S, Using poetry to teach about minerals in earth-science class: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 52, no. 1, p. 10-14. http://www.nagt.org/files/nagt/jge/abstracts/Rule_v52n1p10.pdf