Every year, the First Grade undertakes a year-long study of birds that incorporates virtually all learning areas—language arts, math, science, music, art and service learning. Speaking to a gathering of campus visitors recently, Head of the Lower School Dr. Sandy Wang outlined the goals and scope of this immersive learning experience.
A primary goal of project-based learning is to engage students across learning disciplines, Dr. Wang explained. For example, through the bird study effort, students strengthen their language arts development, supported by their teachers and the librarian, as they “research different types of birds that are native to our state of New Jersey and explore how birds survive, how they nest and what foods they eat.”
Applied Learning Brings Science and Language Arts to Life
In Science class, the students learned about the anatomy of birds and how their physiology differs depending on where in the world they live. A particularly rewarding real-world application of the students’ research and science explorations is an interdisciplinary project to study and create the most effective type of bird feeder.
For starters, Wang shared, “first graders observed the pros and cons of different types of bird feeders in science class, learning the important scientific skills of observation, hypothesis, and note-taking.” They then applied their math skills to their scientific work, creating graphs and charts to draw conclusions about the kinds of feeders that are most successful.
Adding Even More STEAM Skills and Resources
This year, the faculty collaborated to integrate even more STEAM skills and resources, including 3-D printing, into the bird feeder project. Through the students’ Maker class, which help students build the foundations for engineering and design, they designed and built their own bird feeders, filled them with food appropriate for the local bird populations, and then placed them around the campus. In past years, the students used store-bought cookie cutters to create the bird feeders, but this year, led by Technology Coordinator Carol Olson, the students learned how to use Tinkercad software to design their own cookie cutters, which were then printed using the Wellemeyer STEAM Center’s 3D printer.
Incorporating Art and Music
Pulling in even more learning disciplines, Dr. Wang explained, the students also drew, painted and constructed beautiful depictions of birds in art class, while in music, they compared and contrasted the variety of sound and musicality of different bird calls. They composed and recorded their own bird calls, again with Olson’s help. At the recent Lower School Science Fair, First Grade students expertly shared their learning through a series of interactive games and displays, such as a matching game whereby visitors had to pair up food specific to particular bird diets with the bill shapes of different birds.
Bringing the Year-Long Study Full Circle
The first graders continue their study of birds into the spring, observing chicken eggs during incubation, hatching and early development. They will continue to follow the chickens as they move on to reside in our very own PDS chicken coop, which has been a hallmark of the School’s sustainability and garden program for years.
Finally, Dr. Wang stressed the Lower School’s focus on delivering the richest program possible based on her team’s strong understanding of child development, age-appropriate scaffolding of skills, the most up-to-date research on learning and the brain, along with a deep appreciation of what children want to learn about. What does that mean for the First Grade interdisciplinary, year-long immersion, which is already quite impressive?
“If you can even imagine, this curriculum is going to reach even further heights with the addition of our new Lower School STEAM facilities next year,” Dr. Wang concluded.