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Welcome to Nowhere Wood!

Yes, that really is its name. I get to walk here most days.

Charles Darwin had a favourite walk that he called the Sandwalk. He walked round it everyday thinking about evolution. When he was wrestling with a tricky problem, he often walked round it several times.

Most days I walk round thinking of nothing.

On some days I have thoughts big enough to fill the entire sky. On these days I often walk round several times, too.

This blog contains stories from Nowhere. Each story contains a twist, a big idea to make us think more deeply about how life took over this small blue planet in space. 

Trampling acorns underfoot is an excellent place to start.

Stories from Nowhere Wood

About

Neil in Nowhere Wood
Neil in Nowhere Wood. Photograph Paul Ingram

Neil Ingram has had many years’ experience as a biology teacher in a variety of secondary schools, Head of Science and an A-level examiner. He has authored assessment materials for middle years biology courses and written extensively for Nuffield curriculum projects. He has recently co-authored a book on Evolution for Oxford University Press, which was published in 2021.

He is interested in curriculum development for middle years biology, and was a member of the Royal Society of Biology education committee, which developed a curriculum framework for 5-19 years biology education

He has recently retired from the University of Bristol, where was senior lecturer in science education. He taught on  the biology programme on the PGCE course.  in the  He is interested in the impact of genomics on society, and ran a course on Genetics, Society and Education in the University of Bristol.

How to contact the resource:

Twitter: @NeilIngram1

email: neil@neilingram.co.uk

Aims of this resource




Stories from Nowhere are reflections on the changes that take place in a small wood in England during a single year. The stories are springboards for deeper thinking about the “big ideas” of biology.

This a new kind of resource for biology education. It aims to promote literacy and curiosity about the “big ideas” of biology.

Designed for personal reading, it can also be used in online learning or classroom discussions.


The resource has the following features:

a series of short, self-contained, stories, each leading into a “big idea” of biology. Awareness of these ideas develops gradually across different stories.

Each story is 500 words or less, written in accessible English, designed to be read on screens. There are tooltip explanations of key words.

The stories are lavishly illustrated, often with the author’s own photographs.

There are extensive teachers’ notes with links to the KS3 programmes of study for science in England.

The site is under development and, if there is sufficient demand, additional stories can be added at a rate of one or two each week, following Nowhere Wood through the changes that take place within a single year and over the whole history of life on Earth.

Visit the first story now

or visit the Stories from Nowhere homepage.

 

 

Follow @neilingram1 on Twitter

or subscribe to the site to receive regular updates and to help to shape its future development.

Notes for teachers

The stories from Nowhere Wood are short and self-contained. They are intended for private reading to promote literacy. There are tooltip explanations of key terms.

The stories can also be used as part of class discussions.

The stories have been designed with online learning in mind. New stories will be added weekly, hopefully on Fridays, and will continue for as long as there is demand. Ideally, they will continue to the summer of 2022, so they can be built into a class routine.

We welcome comments, ideas and advice from teachers and students.

The stories celebrate the extraordinary nature of the ordinary. They discuss organisms that are common to parks, gardens and woods. Everyone can see these organisms, once they learn how to look.

The stories lead to reflections on the big ideas of biology. Each story only contains a small glimpse of the big idea, but added together across all of the stories, they build a rounded picture of what life is and how it has completely taken over this small blue planet in space.

The resources

The stories from Nowhere Wood are self-contained, holistic views of life. In some ways, any attempt to reduce them to learning outcomes destroys their unity. Nonetheless, teachers might find the following table important. The stories are fully compliant with the programmes of study for the National Curriculum for Science, and can lead to recognisable learning outcomes.

 

Story Key Stage 2 and 3 programmes of study Possible learning outcomes Big ideas

Trampling acorns underfoot

the interdependence of organisms in an ecosystem (KS3)
identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution (KS2)
Understand that oak trees produce acorn fruits, that animals and plant feed on

Appreciate the interdependence between the organisms in Nowhere Wood
life depends on life
Squirrel wars the variation between species… means some organisms compete more successfully… (KS3)

identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution (KS2)

Understand that red squirrels cannot compete successfully with grey squirrels for acorns

Appreciate that competition with grey squirrels has reduced the range of the red squirrels, which are now are in the UK
adventures in time and in space

being and becoming

Being and becoming in Nowhere Wood describe the differences in the life cycles of… an insect (KS2) Know that many organisms have different stages in their life cycles

Appreciate that organisms keep themselves alive (being) and move towards the next stage of their lives (becoming)
adventures in time and in space

being and becoming

life depends on life

what is life?
Counting the ways to stay alive changes in the environment may leave…some…species less well adapted to compete successfully…which in turn may lead to extinction (KS3)

identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution (KS2)

Know that there are many species of living organism, and each faces unique challenges in staying alive

Appreciate that many of species may become extinct before they will be discovered
what is life?
Organise and stay alive the…organisation of multicellular organisms (KS3)

 

Know that living organisms are very organised

Appreciate that living organisms are alive because they are organised and that they stay alive only when their parts function together correctly
organisms are organised

what is life?
Moving things on the interdependence of organisms in an ecosystem, including food webs Know that fungi help to recycle dead wood, breaking it down into nutrients that provide energy and chemicals for growth

Appreciate that molecules are recycled between living organisms
adventures in time and in space

being and becoming

flow-and-recycle

life depends on life

the environment

what is life?
Climbing the walls describe the life process of reproduction in some plants (KS2) Know that ferns can grow in new places because their ferns are light and flat in the air

Appreciate that the genome contains information that the organism uses to grow and develop
adventures in time and in space

being and becoming

flow-and-recycle

life depends on life

pass on information

what is life?
Life is a relay race heredity as the process by which genetic information is transmitted from one
generation to the next (KS3)
Know that a genome is a store of information

Know that an identical copy of the genome exists in every cell of an organism

Appreciate that genetic information is transmitted from one generation to the next because of the inheritance of genomes
adventures in time and in space

pass on information
All change! describe the changes as humans develop to old age (KS2, Yr5) Know that living organisms stay alive because they reap and maintain their cells

Know that an identical copy of the genome exists in every cell of an organism

Know that living organisms need a constant supply of energy and nutrients to stay alive

Appreciate that the same genetic information is transmitted to all cells in the body during cell division
adventures in time and in space

pass on information
A year in the life of a sugar factory the adaptations of leaves for photosynthesis Know that leaves make sugar from water and carbon dioxide, using the sun as an energy source

Know that leaves are factories for making sugar

Know that leaves have an annual life cycle

Appreciate that the plant and the ecosystem recycle the molecules found in leaves
flow and recycle

organisms are organised
Subterranean superheroes the interdependence of organisms in an ecosystem, including food webs Know that fungi recycle leaves into nutrient-rich humus

Know that earthworms improve the structure of soil

Know that plants, fungi and earthworms work together to recycle leaves

Appreciate that soil contains important living organisms that are essential for the survival of ecosystems
flow and recycle

organisms are organised
Spring is coming! the interdependence of organisms in an ecosystem, including food webs (KS3) observe changes across the 4 seasons (KS2) Know that day length is controlled by the movements of the Earth around the Sun

Appreciate that living organisms change their behaviour according to the season.
flow and recycle

organisms are organised
The singing trees the interdependence of organisms in an ecosystem, including food webs (KS3) observe changes across the 4 seasons (KS2) Know that organisms survive because of resources in their environment

Appreciate that living organisms change their behaviour according to the season.
adventures in space and time

organisms are organised
What is a frog? observe changes across the 4 seasons (KS2), describe…the life cycles of..an amphibian (KS2),

how organisms affect, and are affected by, their environment, (KS3)

Know that amphibians return to the water to breed

Appreciate that living organisms compete with each other to gain advantage for survival.
flow and recycle

adventures in space and time

life depends on life

what is life?

 

 

Early risers! observe changes across the 4 seasons (KS2)
  • the dependence of…life on Earth on the ability of photosynthetic organisms…to use sunlight in photosynthesis to build organic molecules that are an essential energy store
Know that snowdrops are seasonal organisms that rely on energy stores in bulbs

Appreciate that stored food promotes early growth and relies on photosynthesis from the previous year.
organisms are organised
Time travellers to Nowhere parts 1, 2 and 3 recognise that soils are made from rocks and organic matter (KS2)

identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution (KS2)

the rock cycle and the formation of… sedimentary … rocks (KS3)

the carbon cycle (KS3 Chemistry)

the composition of the atmosphere (KS3 Chemistry)

the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the impact on climate (KS3 Chemistry)

Know how sandstone rocks are formed

Appreciate how living organisms adapted to environments in the past, and how this impacts on life today

adventures in time and in space

life depends upon life

Safety in numbers describe the differences in the life cycles of an insect… (KS2, yr5)
the interdependence of organisms in an ecosystem, including food webs (KS3) observe changes across the 4 seasons (KS2)
Know that the behaviour of organisms helps them to survive in their environments adventures in time and in space
autumn stories
Goodbye, for now observe changes across the 4 seasons (KS2) Know that the behaviour of organisms helps them to survive in their environments adventures in time and in space
autumn stories
Fruits of the autumn explore the part that flowers play in the life cycle of flowering plants, including pollination, seed formation and seed dispersal (KS2)
reproduction in plants, including flower structure, wind and insect pollination, fertilisation, seed and fruit formation and dispersal, including quantitative investigation of some dispersal mechanisms (KS3)
Know that fruits contain seeds; some fruits are eaten by animals, which help to disperse the seeds life depends upon life
adventures in time and in space
autumn stories
The secret of the winter flowers explore the part that flowers play in the life cycle of flowering plants, including pollination, seed formation and seed dispersal (KS2)
reproduction in plants, including flower structure, wind and insect pollination, fertilisation, seed and fruit formation and dispersal, including quantitative investigation of some dispersal mechanisms (KS3)
Know that some plants can reproduce without making seeds life depends upon life
adventures in time and in space
autumn stories

Further information on the resources

Trampling acorns underfoot

The story begins with an observation, why are there so many acorns in Nowhere Wood, and why does it matter? Science always begins with observations, observations followed by questions.

2020 is officially recognised as a “mast year” for acorns in England. This was published after I had written  this story in early September. There is also this video:

This is a very interesting video, but it gives the impression that the oak trees intentionally choose to overproduce acorns in mast years, but I am not sure that this is so. I suspect the weather conditions have to be right.

The video is quite long and does contain a double entendre, so use cautiously with a class. It is very informative for teachers, though.

The Stories from Nowhere will emphasise interdependence:

  • between organisms in an ecosystem
  • between parts within a cell
  • between the cell and its environment
  • between organisms and their parents
  • between organisms and their ancestors.

Living organisms exist because of their interdependences. Understanding interdependence is a crucial first step to understanding what life is.

Squirrel wars

The disappearance of red squirrels from many English woodlands has been caused by the introduction of the grey squirrel from the United States. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is certainly due to the more efficient digestive systems of grey squirrels, meaning that they can get a larger store of energy and more nutrients than red squirrels. This promotes the growth of grey squirrels at the expense of the red squirrels. The red squirrel population is are vulnerable to disease and is endanged throughout Europe.

The Stories from Nowhere use the metaphor of ‘adventures”, to show that organisms are journeying through time, and that their journeys have inherent risks and no guarantee of success. Organisms are not like machines. The idea of organisms being ‘wet machines’ was very common during the 20th century. The stories will explore why this is no longer a useful metaphor for modern biology.

Being and becoming in Nowhere Wood

Living organisms work hard, in every moment, to stay alive. This requires a continual input of energy and chemical nutrients, that are used to repair and remake their bodies. In the stories, we call this the state of ‘being’.

At the same time, in every moment, the living organisms are moving into the next stage of their lives, which we call ‘becoming’.

At any moment in time all living organisms are both being and becoming.

Students will be aware that organisms have life cycles from Key Stage 2. This seldom revisited at Key Stage 3.

Students often think that the adult (reproducing) stage of the life-cycle is the most important stage. However, the same butterfly exists at all stages of its life-cycle, not just in the adult stage. Each stage of the life cycle depends upon the earlier ones for the continued existence of the butterfly.

Counting the ways to stay alive

Every species that is alive today is a “success story”, because its ancestors have survived long enough to reproduce, and it forms part of an unbroken line of descent from the earliest living organisms.

However, their continued existence is by no means guaranteed. If the environment changes, such that an organism is no longer able to get the necessary input of energy and chemical nutrients, then it will die. If sufficiently large numbers of organisms of that species die, then the species can become extinct.

Most of the species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct. It is likely that, at some point in the future, our human species will also become extinct. This adds a special impetus to those who are concerned about the impact of man-made climate change on the survival of the species on Earth.

Organise and stay alive

Another key theme of the story so nowhere is the idea that living organisms have very highly organised structures, that enable the characteristics of life to emerge. The stories use the idea that living organisms are collections of processes, that interact together.

The characteristics of living organisms emerge when these processes integrate and work together. For this to happen, the various parts of living organisms need to work together precisely in both space and in time.

This story begins to introduce that key idea. The ability of the watch to tell the time depends upon the parts of the watch working together in a very precise and organised way. If the parts cannot do this, then the watch will not keep time.

Cells, tissues, organs, organisms and ecosystems are all collections of interacting processes, and each show unique characteristics of life. This depends upon the various parts of the systems working together in integrated and controlled ways.

Moving things on

Living organisms are stores of energy: plants receive energy from the Sun, and act as energy stores for herbivorous animals. Herbivores our energy stores for carnivores, and so on.

When an organism dies, any energy that it stores is transferred to organisms which act as recyclers. This story tells about one important type of recycler, the fungi. Bacteria and invertebrate organisms can also be recyclers.

The molecules that make up the body of an organism are also available to be recycled, when the organism dies.

Climbing the walls

What grows on a vertical cliff wall 2 metres above the ground, and how did it get there?

This story starts with an observation, followed by a question. The answer is surprising  – ferns,  one of the oldest land plants. This story is about the different stages of the adventure of this fern plant.

One thing that is worth emphasising is that everything takes a long time. It might take a year for the spore to germinate into the tiny gametophyte and another eighteen months for the mature fern to grow up from the gametophyte. I suppose if your lineage is about 390 million years old, then you can afford to take your time!

The organisms exist on different time scales is a big idea in biology, and one that our stories will return to regularly.

Life is a relay race

This story introduces the big idea that the genome contains information and it is this information that is transferred from parents to offspring and between the different stages of the life cycle. Life is a relay race and the baton that is passed on is information. This is an important point, which will be explored further in future stories.

[Later we will discover that the mother also passes on the machinery needed to select, read and use the information, but this is a good place to start.]

All change!

These stories use the metaphor “adventure” to describe the changes that take place in and around an organism during its life. There are two types of changes: those that keep the organism alive (being), which involve the maintenance of molecules and organelles (“parts of cells”) and the like-for-like replacement of cells.

This requires a continual input of energy and nutrients into the cells. This has been described as a “flowing balance”***.

The second type of change involves the production and growth of new cells and tissues, associated with growing and developing (becoming).This also requires a continual input of energy and nutrients into the cells.

This story explores these ideas. Despite the continual changes that take place within an organism, it remains recognisably the same. It has a stable identity. How this happens is only now becoming understood, although it does remain something of a mystery.

The story plants the seed that it is the genetic information in the genome that remains the same. It is copied and passed on to every cell that is made by cell division. Cells use this information to grow and maintain themselves in ways that allow the organism to have a stable identity.

***Some teachers might be interested to know why this is. In terms of thermodynamics, living organisms are open systems that maintain themselves in a highly ordered state, when compared with the external environment.

Organisms stay alive as long as they are able to maintain this ordered state. This requires the active self-maintenance described in this story, which requires the flowing balance of energy and nutrients.

When an organism is no longer alive, its body reaches a thermodynamic equilibrium with its environment.

A year in the life of a sugar factory

I find teaching about leaves difficult, because it is so easily reduced to information: a word equation recipe and a list of incomprehensible names of cells. This is important information, of course, but it is, perhaps, easier to understand and remember if it is set in a meaningful context.

This story offers three  preliminary contexts. The place of a leaf within the life of a tree and within the life of Nowhere Wood are explored. Thirdly, the metaphor of a leaf being a sugar factory is introduced. I teach this by firstly getting my students to imagine they are designing a car factory in terms of its inputs and outputs:

Then, it is relatively easy to transpose the idea across to leaves, introducing some key terms in a meaningful context. (A leaf cell storing sugar as starch is equivalent to storing manufactured cars in a warehouse.)

Finally, in the questions, the big idea of sustainability is introduced. This will be explored further in future stories from Nowhere.

Subterranean superheroes

Readers of the earlier story, ‘A year in the life of a sugar factory’, might think it extravagant for an oak tree to spend a year making leaves, only to throw them away at the end of the year. ‘Subterranean superheroes’ completes the story by showing that the oak trees collaborate with fungi, bacteria and earthworms, to recycle the leaves into nutrients that  can be taken back into the plants through their roots. These organisms have co-evolved together and are totally dependent on each other for their continued survival and also for the survival of Nowhere Wood.

Interdependences are one of the  “biggest” ideas of biology and we should expect them to occur everywhere, at all all levels of biological organisation.

Soil is made from tiny particles of rock, but it is the organic materials (humus) that provide nutrients for the growth of plants. It is the actions of fungi, bacteria and earthworms that maintain the levels of humus in the soil.

It is the actions of earthworms that aerate the soil and improve its drainage that provides the oxygen and water needed for the growth of plant roots. Soil is alive because of the activities of these living organisms. Sand (which lacks these organisms and their processes) is dead and cannot sustain life.

Friday 4th December is #WorldSoilDay2020 and here is a video celebrating our dependence on soil:

Spring is coming!

We return to Nowhere Wood to observe the changes that are taking place as the wood prepares for Spring. All science starts with observations.

The singing trees

A simple observation, led to the question, why are the trees singing, and leads to questions and new thinking. Students can be encouraged to make observations, ask questions and think their way towards answers.

What is a frog?

Frogs are common and fascinating. Pupils can be encouraged to find and observe (but not collect!) spawn in their local ponds. Here we develop the idea of frogs having adventures, an idea introduced in an earlier story, Squirrel Wars.

“Their lives are  adventures.

The word ‘adventure’ has two parts:

Ad means moving towards something.

Venture means attempting something dangerous or difficult, that is risky, with no guarantee of success.

Put the two together and you get the idea that the lives of all living organisms are risky journeys into the future, with no guarantee of success or survival.”

This story adds the idea of competition, between rival males for the opportunity to breed and between tadpoles, which eat each other for food. Competition is defined as  “trying to gain an advantage by being better”.

By competing in this way, natural selection is enabling the strongest, fastest growing and healthiest frogs to mature and be able to breed in future years. In doing so, they will pass their genetic offspring onto future generations. This is the basis for evolution and has ensured the survival of frogs for the last 275 million years ago.

Having uncertain adventures, in a competing environment is the beating heart of evolution.

Early risers!

Snowdrops are examples of “seasonal communities” that have a short growing season, which is terminated by the emergence of tree leaves, that cast shade over the woodland floor.

They have a number of adaptations that enable them to grow early in the year, the first of which is the ability to store energy as food in bulbs. Snowdrops are adapted to grow through frozen soil. They are a sign of the arrival of spring, and are therefore cultivated in gardens, which has significantly promoted their survival over the generations, selecting for early flowering and showy flowers with the characteristic green colouring. This is an association between humans and a wild plant, that has greatly benefited both groups.

There are other secrets of the snowdrop, which will be revealed in future stories.

In the mean time, ask students, why, if the snowdrops are storing food all year in underground bulbs, are the bulbs not eaten by animals?

More on this later….

Time travellers in Nowhere parts 1-3

This is a linked series of three independent stories that traces the origin of the Pennant sandstone that forms Nowhere Wood and the origin of the coalfields that are close by. It uses the language of the rock cycle: weathering, erosion, deposition.

The stories go on to reflect on what the forests of tropical tree ferns were like. The significant rise in oxygen levels allowed large invertebrate animals to develop. The rise in herbivore biomass, promoted the evolution of carnivorous reptiles that were the ancestors of the dinosaurs. The interconnectedness is emphasised.

Ferns growing on the walls of Nowhere Wood in the present  are discussed in the story called ‘Climbing the walls’, and the continuity with the past is emphasised in both stories.

The impact of the tree fern forests on reducing the atmosphere carbon dioxide levels and the subsequent impact on climate change is considered. It is not just humans that have altered the climate, any large-scale effects on atmospheric carbon dioxide can produce similar effects.

Safety in numbers

This story arose from a chance encounter with some insects sitting on leaves on in the autumn sunshine. They looked like cars in a car park. Cluster flies have an interesting, if not gruesome, life cycle, which show just how uncertain life can be. The metaphor “adventures in space and time” seems to fit this insect very well.

Goodbye for now

Observing seasonal changes has been a feature of the National Curriculum since Year 1. Although we know have know that birds migrate for tens of thousands of years, we still do not really understand where they go and how they return. The development of small light-weight GPS trackers might be helping to unlock these secrets.

The secret of the winter flowers

We are so used to associating flowers with spring and summer, that to discover a winter flowering plant is special. Especially when it is going over such a large part of the floor of the wood. The winter heliotrope stores food, from photosynthesis in its rhizome, so it can grow as soon as it is warm enough. December and January have been especially warm in Nowhere Wood, with temperature records being broken. The plant has taken advantage of this, with the first flowers opening at the start of the new year.

The secret that there are only male plants in the wood is not unique;  other species that are brought be people to the UK (such as Canadian pondweed, Elodea) are the same.

The plant thrives because of vegetative reproduction, forming clone plants. This is ideal, as long as the climate and the environmental factors suit its growth. With no genetic variation in the population, there is no chance of the plant recovering from adverse environmental conditions. A fungal disease could easily wipe out the entire UK population. We have seen this with Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s and, more recently, Ass die-back disease.