Do worms really eat dirt?
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DISCUSS:

How would you figure out whether worms were pests or helpful? What evidence would you need?

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DISCUSS (1 of 2):

Not everyone was convinced by Darwin. What additional evidence would make Darwin’s claim more convincing?

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DISCUSS (2 of 2):

Can you think of any other ways that worms could be helpful besides mixing and loosening up the soil?

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DISCUSS:

Do earthworms really just eat dirt, or do they eat other things as well?

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Extensions

Below are ideas for extending this topic beyond the Exploration & Activity you just completed.
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Classroom Activity: Make a Worm Bin for Your Classroom

  • If you’re thinking about adding a worm bin to your classroom, this video (2:44) from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission will get you started.

  • Once your worm bin is established, check out this website from “Worm Composting Headquarters” to help with care and maintenance. Included are tips on everything from red-wiggler care to compost-harvesting strategies.

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Teacher Resource: “Do the Rot Thing”


If you really want to dive into composting, this comprehensive, classroom-friendly guide offers a variety of grade-specific compost- and worm-learning activities, including handouts, classroom tips, and standards guidelines. (From the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, K–12)

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Classroom Resource: Meet Squirmin’ Herman!

“The Adventures of Squirmin’ Herman”, from the University of Illinois Extension, is designed for students to learn about worms and the work they do.

This online resource includes information on worm history, behavior, anatomy, care, and more. Scattered throughout are links, quizzes, activities, and vocabulary words to keep things interesting and challenging.

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Videos

Meet two earthworm enthusiasts:

  • In this video, 14-year-old Abigail Hardin shows off the “Wonderful Worms” in an urban garden. (3:41; PBS Learning Media, Grades 4–6)
  • And here, Emma Sherlock, curator of free-living worms at the Natural History Museum in London, introduces us to Britain’s earthworms and explains why they’re so fascinating—and so important. (4:38; BBC)
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Video Discussion: Worms at Work

This video (1:45) speeds up time so you can see worms at work. (from the online “Micropolitan Museum”)

Read these questions, watch the video, and then discuss:

  1. Watch the worms tunnel through the three layers of dirt. Some wiggle through faster than others. Why do you think that might be?
  2. Find a worm in a tunnel. What could it be doing?
  3. When the video starts, there’s a thick layer of dried leaves on top. Is it still there at the end? What do you think has happened?
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Readings

These online books are free with registration as an educator on Get Epic!

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Image & Video Credits

Mystery Science respects the intellectual property rights of the owners of visual assets. We make every effort to use images and videos under appropriate licenses from the owner or by reaching out to the owner to get explicit permission. If you are the owner of a visual and believe we are using it without permission, please contact us—we will reply promptly and make things right.

Exploration
Agriculture Helpers - earthworms on the ground by Image used under license from Shutterstock.com: DAMIAN Films
Peasant Woman Digging, the Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontiose by Camille Pissarro
Rainy Sidewalk by Vince Mig
Watering Can by Momentmal , used under CC0
caterpillar green tree by Image used under license from Shutterstock.com: Ikpro
common earthworm, Lumbricus terrestris, pulling leaves into tunnel in soil, ground, earth, UK by Image used under license from alamy.com: Papilio
drawing of woman and children in garden by Ernest Walbourn
earthworm in water on sidewalk by Carl Barrentine
football field by JSN Young , used under CC0
hands holding earthworms in soil by Image used under license from alamy.com: Rachel Husband
large green caterpillar eating leaf by Luke Gilliam , used under CC BY
person in running shoes walking, rear shot by Image used under license from Shutterstock.com: Kekyalyaynen
portrait of Charles Darwin by George Richmond
close earthworm photo by Image used under license from Shutterstock.com: kzww
Print Prep
Activity Prep

In this Mystery, students discover the critical role earthworms play in decomposing dead material and releasing nutrients into the soil. During a two-part activity, Ask a Worm, students observe earthworms and then design their own “fair test” investigations of earthworm behavior. Students first make close observations of worms. Then, students conduct a simple experiment with multiple trials to figure out if worms prefer dry or wet areas. They consider what a “fair test” is and design an experiment to answer other questions about worms.

Preview activity

Number of students:
Clean-up Supplies (Eg. Paper Towels)
3 sheets per group
Container for Water
Any container that can hold a cup of water will work.
Details
1 container per 8 students
Black Construction Paper
1 sheet per 8 students
Newspaper
Used as table covers for your worm stations. Plastic trash bags will also work.
Details
10 sheets per class
Paper Plates
2 plates per student
Paper Towels
2 sheets per student
Plastic Bin
Any plastic container measuring 10” x 14” works well for up to 300 red worms. For more worms, we suggest a larger bin.
Details
1 bin per class
Plastic Containers w/ Lids
Each used as a worm station for about a dozen worms.
Details
1 container per 8 students
Plastic Plates (10")
4 plates per class
Plastic Spoons
1 spoon per group
Plastic Spoons
8 spoons per class
Solo Cups (9 oz)
A paper cup or mug will also work.
Details
1 cup per group
Worm Bedding
Shredded newspaper or cardboard work well.
Details
50 sheets of paper per class
Red Worms
Often sold in quantities of 100-200 at garden stores. See prep instructions below for recommended sources for worms.
Details
2 worms per student
Ask a Worm printout 1 per student
Worm Watcher printout 1 per student
Prep Instructions

We recommend students work in groups of four. Students will share supplies with their group in Part 1 and share experiment ideas with their group in Part 2. Homeschool students can work on their own.

You will need access to water for this activity.

Plan Your Time

Part 1 (observing a worm) takes 15 to 20 minutes.

Part 2 (experimenting with worms) takes another 20 to 25 minutes.

You may want to divide this lesson into two sessions, stopping after Part 1 and continuing with the worm experiments at a later point. If you plan to do the activity in two sessions, Part 2 of the activity begins here.

Source Your Worms

Red worms (also known as red wigglers) can be purchased from a garden store or ordered by mail from a variety of online sources. We recommend ordering from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm. At bait shops, you can sometimes find red worms, but more commonly you’ll find earthworms. The bigger red worms are great for observations and in the natural habitat, they burrow deep in the soil, making red worms a better choice if you want to make a worm bin. Red worms live in the top layers of the soil, feeding on decomposing leaves and organic debris.

Prepare the Construction Paper

Cut each sheet of black construction paper into eight pieces.

Divide Supplies Into Part 1 and Part 2

For Part 1, each student needs 1 paper towel, 1 paper plate, a small piece of black construction paper, and a Worm Watcher printout. Each table group of four students will also need a cup of water, a spoon, and a few extra paper towels.

For students that don't feel comfortable touching worms, you can provide plastic gloves.

Supplies Part 1

For Part 2, students will need all supplies from Part 1. In addition, each student needs another dry paper towel, another clean paper plate, and the Ask A Worm printout.

Supplies Part 2

Set Up a Temporary Worm Bin

Once you purchase your worms, you’ll need to make a temporary worm bin. To make a temporary worm bin, you’ll need a large plastic bin, worm bedding, and some water. First, add a layer of worm bedding that’s at least 2 inches deep into the large plastic bin. Then, wet the worm bedding until it’s thoroughly damp but not soggy. Finally, add your worms.

This worm bin can serve both as temporary housing for your worms and as a place that students can conduct worm experiments, using the approach we describe in the final video of the Mystery.

Your temporary worm bin can house your worms for a few weeks. Feed the worms by burying fruit and vegetable scraps (the smaller the better) in their bedding. Worms will eat apple cores, carrot peels, and browning lettuce, but avoid adding lots of orange peels -- they’re too acidic. Worms eat about 3 times their weight in food each week. Keep the bedding moist. Some recommend punching holes in the top of the bin, but our worms have done fine without that. Fluff up the bedding every week or so to make sure the worms get enough air.

Set Up Worm Stations

During the activity, each student will observe a worm. We recommend that you set up Worm Stations where students can obtain a worm, wash off the soil, and then bring it back to their desks for observation. For a class of 32, we recommend setting up four Worm Stations. For each Worm Station, dig a dozen worms out of your worm bin. The easiest technique is to wear a rubber glove and dig with your hand. The worms will congregate wherever you last placed food. Check out this video to see how easy it is to set up a Worm Station.

To set up a Worm Station:

  • Cover a table with plastic or newspaper.
  • Fill a cup with water and place it on the table.
  • Put two spoons, one plastic plate, and one of the small plastic containers on the table.
  • Right before you do the activity, add some of the worms and soil from your temporary worm bin.

Supplies Part 1

Make a Permanent Worm Bin or Release Your Worms

Our focus is on designing an experiment. Though we don’t include time for students to carry out their experiments as part of this class session, we encourage teachers and students to complete their experiments on their own, using a temporary worm bin. If you want to let students carry out the experiments they design, additional supplies will depend on the experiments they come up with.

NOTE: Worms can be a great addition to your garden, but they are not a good addition to a forest habitat. In a forest, worms devour the leaf litter that native plants and animals depend on. To protect the forest, do not dump your worms in a forest or woodland. Find a gardener who will welcome them as an addition to their compost bin — or start a compost bin of your own.

Extensions
Download this Mystery to your device so you can play it offline: