Over the summer I wrote an integrated STEM focused action plan for my fourth grade students that included detailed lessons to study our schoolyard and determine a way to improve the wildlife diversity on our school campus. We started the year by making weekly trips to the nature trail and observing the plant and animal life in and near the woods.
Three weeks into the year, I arranged a field trip for my students to visit the local nature center that is operated by our school system. This is a trip that is traditionally reserved for fifth graders but one of the teachers at the nature center was able to provide a bus for a half day visit. I also partnered with a volunteer from the Harford County Youth Bird Club. She read my action plan, gave feedback, and attended our field trip as a guest trail guide, teaching my students about birding and monitoring bluebird boxes. Additionally, the nature center teacher arranged for the volunteer group of bird banders to do a demonstration for my students. It was an informative and inspiring kick-off to our project.
Later in the year, as the weather became colder and snowier, our trips to the nature trail had to be postponed. I had found another partner in the Harford County Bird Club who was willing to come to school and give a talk on local bird species and how to identify them by wing shape, color, size, and location. She returned a few weeks later to discuss bird beak and skeletal adaptations.
In the spring, we started our investigation again by defining habitat, ecosystem, and arrangement. Students also did a simulation to collect data and identify trends in deer populations. We identified career fields where people worked with this type of data and identified reasons why monitoring animal populations was necessary.
My students measured distances from various points around the schoolyard and used digital cameras to take photos of human and physical features. The photos and measurements were used to create schoolyard maps. I worked with our local planning and zoning office to access historical aerial photos for the purpose of identifying changes in physical and human-made features. Students used colored dots to note the changes on the map.
Next, students researched the type of animals that could be found in our eastern woodland ecosystem and made posters to inform our school about the animals we could spot in our schoolyard. We did three schoolyard safaris to look for evidence of the animals from our list. After that I asked students to think about our list of animals and to identify one that we haven't been able to spot that would be a welcomed addition to the habitat. Based on the field trip earlier in the year, students easily decided that bluebirds would be an interesting and beautiful bird to attract to our schoolyard ecosystem. This led to more research and students now had to apply what they learned about animal life functions and habitat to make claims and find evidence to support their argument that our schoolyard is an appropriate setting for a bluebird trail.
In the meantime, I had already gotten plans for building nesting boxes from the bird club as well as one completed box and the hardware for putting boxes together. I was able to get donated wood from the hardware store and asked a teacher at a nearby high school to have her students cut the bird house parts and make kits for my students to build.
This leads me to next year. With so many lost days for snow, power outages, and ice, we have not been able finish the action plan. The current fourth graders will be in fifth grade at my school next year so I will be starting an ecology club with them. First on our list will be to revisit the schoolyard maps and Eastern Bluebird posters in order to identify ideal locations for our five boxes. Students will mark the locations on their maps and write a proposal to the principal and custodians for creating a bluebird trail. Also, our bird club volunteers will act as consultants on the plan and will be doing bird walks with the club and serve as guest speakers each month at our meetings. In the early spring we will be ready to install our bluebird boxes and begin monitoring them. Another engineering opportunity will be for my ecology club members to design predator guards.
Through this project, my students have learned to investigate an issue, use technology sensibly to solve a problem and research answers, interpret data and use graphs to identify trends, apply spatial reasoning and measurement to make maps, and support claims with evidence. Additionally, students have spent considerably more time outside studying our local ecosystem than they ever have in any other grade level. They are learning that humans can have positive and negative impacts on nature and that we have a responsibility to improve our environment and lessen the negative impacts. Besides all of these noteworthy lessons, they had fun learning about the wildlife around us.