Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix
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Vermicomposting (Grades 3-5)
3 - 5
1 hour to set up; additional time for observation
The class will create a worm bin which will serve as a basis for experiments about ecosystems, life and nutrient cycles, and decomposition.
- Plastic bin with lid
- Wood pieces, plastic pop bottle lids, or other material for bin legs
- Drain tray, cardboard, or extra newspaper
- Newspaper, enough to fill the plastic bin 3/4 full (Remove any glossy pages; they are not good for worms.)
- Bucket or tub
- Soil, 3-4 cups
- Spray bottle
- Food waste
- 1 pound of red wiggler worms (These worms have a number of different common names; look for the scientific name Eisenia fetida. Search online or contact your county Extension agent for sources of red wiggler worms.)
vermicomposting: to use worms to convert organic waste into compost
recycling: to make something new from something that has been used before
Did you know? (Ag Facts)
- There are approximately 2,700 different kinds of earthworms.1
- The largest earthworm ever found was in South Africa and measured 22 feet from its nose to the tip of its tail.1
- Charles Darwin spent 39 years studying earthworms more than 100 years ago.1
Background Agricultural Connections
Interest Approach – Engagement
- Ask students what the word recycling means. Have them call out items they have recycled before. Make a list of those items. Ask the students if food can be recycled. Tell them to imagine they are in the cafeteria at their school. Have them try to think of ways they can use the leftover food being thrown away to make something else. (This question will probably bring interesting responses.)
- Ask students what happens to leaves in the forest during the winter. (They fall to the ground.) Ask them why the leaves that fall from the trees every year don’t just pile up higher and higher. (They break down/decompose and become part of the soil.) Explain that food can be recycled in the same way plants are recycled in the environment. Tell them that they will recycle their leftovers into a special soil that will help give plants the nutrients they need. The secret is earthworms.
- Tell students that you are going to build a worm bin to serve as a home for worms you will keep in your classroom to observe and study.
- Show them the worms you will be adding to your bin and allow them to find a worm and look at it closely. Tell the group that these red wiggler earthworms are especially suited for composting food scraps inside an indoor bin.
Setting up the Bin: Teacher Preparation
- Get a plastic bin with a lid. Any size will work, but the larger the bin, the heavier it will get as it fills up. The smaller the bin, the less you will be able to feed the worms at a time. Consider your goals when deciding on a size. For classroom demonstration, a 10- to 14-gallon plastic bin works well.
- Drill small holes (use a 1/4- to 1/2-inch drill bit) around the base and in the bottom of the bin. These holes allow air flow to and from the soil.
- Attach four feet to the bin to allow drainage and ventilation through the bottom. Small pieces of wood or plastic pop bottle lids can be attached with screws or an appropriate glue.
- Find or purchase a tray to catch any drainage that may come out of your bin. Another plastic bin, an aluminum pan, or even a piece of cardboard or stack of newspaper will work. Cardboard or newspaper will need to be replaced occasionally, but the pieces can be put into the bin for worm food.
Setting up the Bin: Student Participation
- Ask students what kind of environment they think worms need to be comfortable and healthy. They will probably say worms need soil to live in. Explain that the worms you have are a special kind that doesn’t burrow deep into the soil. Red wiggler worms prefer to live near the surface of the soil where they have lots of organic matter to eat. They need protection from the sunlight but don’t like to be deep in heavy soil. Explain that you will make them a home out of newspaper strips.
- Have the students help you rip newspaper into inch-wide strips to use as bedding for the worms.
- As students are ripping the newspaper, discuss the importance of moisture, air, and temperature in the worm bin.
- Put most of the newspaper strips into a bucket or tub and add water until they are moist but not soupy; they should feel like a well wrung out washcloth. If the newspaper gets too wet, add a few dry strips. Explain to students that worms breathe through their moist skin. If they dry out, they can’t breathe. However, if the bin gets too wet there may not be enough oxygen for the worms.
- Add the moist newspaper strips to the bin, and fluff them so they aren’t packed tight. The bin should be about 3/4 full.
- Sprinkle three to four cups of soil over the bedding and spray it with water to make the soil damp. Explain to students that worms don’t have teeth. The hard mineral particles in the soil will help break down food in the worm’s gut. Soil also contains microorganisms that will help jump-start the composting process.
- Bury the food scraps just under the surface of the soil and newspaper. Discuss with students the kinds of foods that worms like to eat. They like newspaper, but the glossy pages aren’t good for them. They like most food scraps, especially from fruits, vegetables, and grains. They also like coffee grounds and filters and tea bags, fallen leaves, eggshells, weeds, and lawn clippings. It is best not to feed them meat, dairy, or things that contain a lot of fat like salad dressing because these things can make your bin stink.
- Now add your worms on top, and watch as they burrow down into the bedding to get out of the light.
- Discuss the important things that worms do to keep the soil healthy.
- Worms burrow in the soil. The burrows and trails that they leave help the soil absorb and hold water. This is important for plants that need water to grow. The burrows and trails also make it easy for plant roots to grow into the soil. When the soil is full of worm burrows and plant roots, it is less likely to wash away or erode when it rains.
- Worms eat organic matter like dead leaves. The castings that come out the back end of a worm after it has digested its food are full of nutrients and microorganisms that are good for plants and for the soil. Worms eat dead plants and other waste and turn them into food for living plants. Worms act as nature’s recyclers and make the soil fertile.
- Discuss the importance of soil as a natural resource that is necessary for the production of our food. Almost everything that we eat, much of what we wear, and many of the tools that we use originate from plants grown in soil on a farm. See the lesson plan The Soil Chain for hands-on activities to teach about the importance of soil.
The worms and castings from your worm bin can be used to engage students in a wide variety of investigations. A few possibilities are described below. While worms are out of the bins, keep a spray bottle handy to prevent the worms from drying out.
- Observe the effect worms have on soil.
- Gather the following materials: two jars, lids with holes, dark soil, light sandy soil, water, vegetable scraps, two pieces of dark paper, and tape.
- In the bottom of each jar, put a layer of dark soil about one inch thick. On top of this, place a one-inch thick layer of light sandy soil. Keep adding dark, then light layers until the jar is half-full.
- Slightly moisten the soil in both jars with water.
- Place two earthworms in one jar, and then add some vegetable scraps to the top of both jars.
- Put a lid on each jar. Label the jar with the earthworms as “Earthworms” and label the other jar “No Earthworms.”
- Take the dark pieces of paper and wrap around each jar. Tape tightly. Put the jars aside.
- Have each student write down their predictions about what they think will happen in each jar.
- After three days unwrap the jars. See what has happened.
- Observe the characteristics of living worms.
- Divide students into cooperative groups.
- Place a few worms on a tray covered with a damp newspaper for each group.
- Allow students to observe their worms moving around on the tray.
- Have students sketch a worm, measure how long it is, record how it moves, and any kind of noise made as it moves.
- Have students discuss which end is the head and which is the tail. Have them give observable evidence to justify their reasoning.
- Encourage students to gently pick up a worm and describe what it feels like on their hands.
- After allowing students to make their initial observations, gather the trays, and return the worms to the bin or continue with more of the following investigations.
- Investigate worms’ response to light and touch stimulus.
- Have students predict the worms’ response to light from a flashlight, and to being gently touched with a chenille stem. Have them justify their predictions.
- Put the worms on trays and give one to each group.
- Shine a flashlight directly on the worms and observe their behaviors.
- Gently touch the worms with a chenille stem that has a small loop at that end and observe their behaviors.
- Allow 5-10 minutes for students to observe the worms’ behaviors. Have students record their observations with an explanation for the worms’ behaviors.
- Investigate worms’ response to barrier stimulus.
- Give each group several items to act as barriers (a pencil, a clothespin, a block of wood, a crumbled piece of paper or a pile of soil, etc.).
- Have students predict the worms’ responses to these barriers. Will they initially go around a barrier? Crawl over it? Burrow underneath it? Try to keep going forward? Go backwards? Will their responses differ for different barriers? Have students justify their predictions.
- Give each group a tray and have the students arrange three or four barriers on it.
- Place several worms on the tray.
- Allow 5-10 minutes for students to observe the worms’ behaviors. Have the students record their observations with an explanation for the worms’ behaviors.
- Investigate worms’ response to temperature stimulus.
- The day before this activity, place several slightly damp paper towels in a freezer. Place layers of waxed paper in between the damp paper towels for easy separation.
- Prior to this activity, slightly moisten several paper towels and leave them at room temperature.
- Just before this activity, place several slightly damp paper towels in a microwave to heat them.
- Have students predict how the worms will react to a cold surface, a room-temperature surface and a hot surface and then justify their predictions.
- Give each group a tray and a cold, a hot, and a room-temperature paper towel.
- Place several worms on each paper towel.
- Allow 5-10 minutes for students to observe the worms’ behaviors. Have students record their observations with an explanation for the worms’ behaviors.
- Investigate the effect of the vermicompost on plant growth.
- Depending on the resources available, try growing seeds with differing amounts of vermicompost added or adding different amounts of compost to plants growing in the garden.
- Have students predict which amounts of compost will produce the best results.
- Observe changes in the plants for two to four weeks and have students use tape measures to record growth.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Worms are living things that respond to stimulus and have basic needs.
- Worms eat organic matter and produce nutrient-rich castings, converting food scraps and dead plants into nutrients that help living plants grow.
- Worms aerate and loosen the soil, improving the ability of the soil to hold water and making it easier for plants to grow.
- Soil is an important natural resource that helps produce food, clothing, and materials for many of the things we use every day.
Classroom Vermicomposting Resources
There are many different ways to build a successful worm bin. These resources provide a variety of ideas for bin construction as well as additional classroom activities and information about harvesting finished vermicompost.
- Outdoor Classroom: Worm Bins & Vermiculture
- The Adventures of Herman. The Autobiography of Squirmin’ Herman the Worm.
- The Worm Guide. A Vermicomposting Guide for Teachers
- Vermicomposting: A Starter’s Guide for Teachers
- Vermicomposting for Schools
Share the book Nature Close-up - Earthworms by Elaine Pascoe with your students, and use the experiments provided at the end to investigate how worms react to different colors of light, what worms like to eat, and how worms affect plant growth.
Suggested Companion Resources
- Make Your Own Worm Bin (Activity)
- The Garden Show (Musical Play) (Activity)
- Diary of a Worm (Book)
- Dirt: The Scoop on Soil (Book)
- Mountains of Jokes About Rocks, Minerals, and Soil (Book)
- Rocks and Soil (Book)
- Home Composting - Turning Your Spoils to Soil (Multimedia)
- How Do You Grow a Fish Sandwich? Video (Multimedia)
- Worm Farm (Multimedia)
- Backyard Composting (Teacher Reference)
- Worms Eat My Garbage (Teacher Reference)
- Soil Center (Website)
- The Adventures of Herman (Website)
- The Worm Guide: a Vermicomposting Guide for Teachers (Website)
State Standards for Utah
Grade 3: Science Standard 2Students will understand that organisms depend on living and nonliving things within their environment.
Objective 1Classify living and nonliving things in an environment. Meeting one or more of the following indicators: a) Identify characteristics of living things (i.e., growth, movement, reproduction). b) Identify characteristics of nonliving things. c) Classify living and nonliving things in an environment.
Objective 2Describe the interactions between living and nonliving things in a small environment. Meeting one or more of the following indicators: a) Identify living and nonliving things in a small environment (e.g., terrarium, aquarium, flowerbed) composed of living and nonliving things. b) Predict the effects of changes in the environment (e.g., temperature, light, moisture) on a living organism. c) Observe and record the effect of changes (e.g., temperature, amount of water, light) upon the living organisms and nonliving things in a small–scale environment. d) Compare a small–scale environment to a larger environment (e.g., aquarium to a pond, terrarium to a forest). e) Pose a question about the interaction between living and nonliving things in the environment that could be investigated by observation.
Grade 4: Science Standard 3Students will understand the basic properties of rocks, the processes involved in the formation of soils, and the needs of plants provided by soil.
Objective 3Observe the basic components of soil and relate the components to plant growth. Meeting one or more of the following indicators: a) Observe and list the components of soil (i.e., minerals, rocks, air, water, living and dead organisms) and distinguish between the living, nonliving, and once living components of soil. b) Diagram or model a soil profile showing topsoil, subsoil, and bedrock, and how the layers differ in composition. c) Relate the components of soils to the growth of plants in soil (e.g., mineral nutrients, water). d) Explain how plants may help control the erosion of soil. e) Research and investigate ways to provide mineral nutrients for plants to grow without soil (e.g., grow plants in wet towels, grow plants in wet gravel, grow plants in water).
Grade 5: Science Standard 5Students will understand that traits are passed from the parent organisms to their offspring, and that sometimes the offspring may possess variations of these traits that may help or hinder survival in a given environment.
Objective 1Using supporting evidence, show that traits are transferred from a parent organism to its offspring. Meeting one or more of the following indicators: a) Make a chart and collect data identifying various traits among a given population (e.g., the hand span of students in the classroom, the color and texture of different apples, the number of petals of a given flower). b) Identify similar physical traits of a parent organism and its offspring (e.g., trees and saplings, leopards and cubs, chickens and chicks). c) Compare various examples of offspring that do not initially resemble the parent organism but mature to become similar to the parent organism.(e.g., mealworms and darkling beetles, tadpoles and frogs, seedlings and vegetables, caterpillars and butterflies). d) Contrast inherited traits with traits and behaviors that are not inherited but may be learned or induced by environmental factors (e.g., cat purring to cat meowing to be let out of the house; the round shape of a willow is inherited, while leaning away from the prevailing wind is induced). e) Investigate variations and similarities in plants grown from seeds of a parent plant (e.g., how seeds from the same plant species can produce different colored flowers or identical flowers).
Objective 2Describe how some characteristics could give a species a survival advantage in a particular environment. Meeting one or more of the following indicators: a) Compare the traits of similar species for physical abilities, instinctual behaviors, and specialized body structures that increase the survival of one species in a specific environment over another species (e.g., difference between the feet of snowshoe hare and cottontail rabbit, differences in leaves of plants growing at different altitudes, differences between the feathers of an owl and a hummingbird, differences in parental behavior among various fish). b) Identify that some environments give one species a survival advantage over another (e.g., warm water favors fish such as carp, cold water favors fish such as trout, environments that burn regularly favor grasses, environments that do not often burn favor trees). c) Describe how a particular physical attribute may provide an advantage for survival in one environment but not in another (e.g., heavy fur in arctic climates keep animals warm whereas in hot desert climates it would cause overheating; flippers on such animals as sea lions and seals provide excellent swimming structures in the water but become clumsy and awkward on land; cacti retain the right amount of water in arid regions but would develop root rot in a more temperate region; fish gills have the ability to absorb oxygen in water but not on land). d) Research a specific plant or animal and report how specific physical attributes provide an advantage for survival in a specific environment.
Agricultural Literacy Outcomes
Agriculture and the Environment
- Recognize the natural resources used in agricultural practices to produce food, feed, clothing, landscaping plants, and fuel (e.g., soil, water, air, plants, animals, and minerals) (T1.3-5.e)
Common Core Connections
Language: Anchor Standards
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.
4-LS1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes
4-LS1-1Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.
4-LS1-2Use a model to describe that animals receive different types of information through their senses, process the information in their brain, and respond to the information in different ways.
5-LS2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics
5-LS2-1Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.