Expansion of the "Learning Garden" to include bird studies

Educator Name: Kathy Grosso
School Name: Dudley STEM Elementary School

At Dudley STEM Elementary School, the expansive school grounds are an integral part of the classroom and student learning. Teachers here understand the importance of making the content relevant and engaging students in experiences that make the concepts real for them. As part of the STEM initiative here at Dudley STEM, an official Monarch Waystation has been established. A ‘Learning Garden’ will be built this summer, along with a building to house a donated telescope. Many students and parents have approached us about placing ten birdhouses and five feeders at various places around the school grounds. While we like this idea, we believe that it can better enhance student learning if done with more intentional connection to the STEM content areas, as well as literacy. This grant would help provide resources to purchase materials to build a variety of different bird houses and feeders. The type of bird houses built, the placement of these houses, what kinds of birds they attract and the kind of seeds that should be placed in the feeders would be discussed and planned by the students. This ‘Bring on the Birds’ project would be part of the STEM+ clubs that would take place for ALL students. STEM + is part of a extended learning program once a week that is designed to give ALL students exposure and experience with relevant and meaningful connections to the STEM content. ‘Bring on the Birds’ will be open to upper elementary students who have an interest in engineering (designing and building the birdhouses and feeders) and expanding the use of the school grounds as a place for teaching and learning. An additional component of this program would be the partnership with the Calhoun Area Career Center. High School students from the construction program would be working with the elementary students to help them design, build, and install their bird feeders and birdhouses. It not only provides an opportunity for the high school students to hone their skills but it also presents another STEM field to our students. A second partnership would be with the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary located in Augusta, Michigan. The educational staff from the Sanctuary would provide expertise and assistance in determining the types of birdhouses and feeders necessary to attract local birds to the school grounds. Students would also go to the bird sanctuary to get a broader perspective of protecting bird habitats.

It is one thing to talk about birds, where they build nests, what they eat, and their migration patterns in the classroom; maybe read a few books; and maybe draw a picture or two. It is a completely different approach to have students investigate local birds and design bird feeders and houses to attract them to the school grounds. Then, once the feeders and houses are installed all over the school grounds, they become an available teaching tool for every teacher and student in the school for multiple instructional purposes. One example might be that a 2nd grade classroom might use the bird feeders as a way to collect data, graph the data, and make predictions on how the number of birds coming to the feeder changes throughout the day, season, or year. Another example might be that observations of the birdhouses become one of the tools used to teach animal life cycles in both the Kindergarten and 3rd grade curriculum. How does the life cycle of a bird differ than that of other animals?

Student learning improves when connections are made. The designing, building, placement, and observation of the birdhouses and feeders engages students in all of the STEM areas, most specifically the Engineering component. In addition, math skills will be needed to build the feeders and houses. Science knowledge will be important in connecting the houses and feeders to the specific birds, along with an understanding of their nesting and eating habits. We also see long-term benefits in the value of making observations and data collection. This data could also lead to discussions and understanding of migration patterns and the connection to the seasons. The partnership with the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary and the Battle Creek Audubon Society will also lend expertise, expose students to community resources, and provide a way for students to see the importance of the feeders and houses outside of the context of school. The relationships that form with the high school students from the Career Center has a variety of benefits; some that we may not even be able to predict at this time. We also want to make sure that students are exposed to a variety of STEM fields. Construction is one of those fields that students may not think about in terms of needing science, math, engineering, or tech skills. In reality, it is important for people in the construction business to have a strong foundation in all of these.

One of the goals of the Dudley STEM school is to expand the teaching and learning outside the traditional walls of the classroom. Creating learning spaces that are embedded and seamless with the school grounds provides opportunities for learning to take place in the ‘real’ environment. For the past year, the students at this STEM school have been involved in the creation, building, and usage of an official Monarch Waystation. The Waystation has been used as an outdoor laboratory to teach students about life cycles, components of habitats, and science process skills. Students’ questions have now expanded to other living things that they see outside the classrooms. Specifically, birds and insects. They’ve seen how we can attract Monarchs to the school grounds and have started to wonder if we could set up a similar situation for birds. The birdhouses and feeders would provide that environment.