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Birds of a Feather

One challenge of teaching middle school science is designing learning experiences that are relevant to students and to local and global communities. Conducting science that produces meaningful results for the community is motivating and empowering for learners and helps them understand and value the role of science in society.  In response to this challenge, AREI partnered with the College of Mount St Joseph (MSJ) and the Seven Hills School to implement a yearlong bird studies centerpiece in the 6th grade life science curriculum.  The partnership established the following goals: 1) empower students to function as scientists, 2) (re)connect students with the natural world in a way that helps them recognize and value the interconnectedness of humanity and nature, 3) help students develop a sense of place—both locally and globally, and 4) provide students with opportunities for authentic collaboration with community partners.

The key to getting students to understand and not just know science is to frame the content in such a way that students generate questions that lead them to investigate the answers (e.g.  Why do people band birds?).  By color banding the birds at the Seven Hills bird garden, the students began to put the answer together themselves.

 They documented birds with color bands (“Kiwi” the Tufted Titmouse has a lime green band), made observations (“I think it was funny that the size of the peanut was bigger than Kiwi’s beak”) and formulated questions of their own (How will different textures on the perches affect the feeding behavior of the birds?).

 

The students were first introduced to us via a Skype session in which we discussed the importance of studying birds and bird banding.  

We then visited the middle school and color banded the birds that came to the bird feeders in the school’s bird garden.  The middle-school students spent the entire day interacting with us and discussing various aspects of bird biology.

 

 Students created inquiry projects to answer their questions, and posted these on the class wiki for feedback from us. They conducted biweekly bird counts and submitted data to eBird, created eField Guides, completed inquiry projects, and presented their data at a school event and at the 2010 Queen City Bird Festival.

Parental feedback has indicated that the Seven Hills students’ families are also becoming more aware and appreciative of the relationship between humanity and nature, as the students engage family members to help them monitor birds at home. Several students and their families have participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count and Queen City Young Birders Club bird walks.  The study of birds has allowed students and parents to connect in a way that typically—and unfortunately—occurs less and less frequently during early adolescence. Empowering educational projects like this bird studies program allow students to be experts, sharing their knowledge with parents, thereby generating real parental interest in what the children are able to share.  This type of experience, valued by both the children and the parents, creates meaningful common ground.   For more information contact:  Jill Russell, PhD at jill_russell@mail.msj.edu