PDS Middle School Science Students Explore Animal Cognition with Chimp Haven

About two years ago, Princeton Day School Middle School Science teacher Jessica Clingman rewrote the Fifth Grade science curriculum after extensive professional development focused on enhancing the learning experience for middle school-aged students, and in collaboration with Science Department Chair Jason Park and other colleagues. In the first semester, the new curriculum explores the science of cognition: how we think and also how we can identify cognition in animals and plants. In the second semester, the theme shifts to sustainability, employing the students' heightened awareness of cognition and how it shapes learning and applying those lessons them to real-life global problems and potential solutions.

After learning about animal cognition and presenting their findings to the rest of the School, the fifth graders for the past two years have take action to raise awareness about how animals think. Inspired by an informative guest lecture on chimpanzees from Dr. Stephen Ross, Director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, IL, the grade held a bake sale last year and the year before and chose to donate the proceeds to Chimp Haven, a national chimpanzee sanctuary located in Louisiana. Read more about the efforts of the fifth graders here.

During last spring's Panther Online remote learning chapter, when all field trips were canceled, Ms. Clingman replaced a planned field trip with a virtual field trip to Chimp Haven to further explore that group's work with chimpanzees. Shortly after, Ms. Clingman forged a working partnership with Chimp Haven, contributing lessons she created as the organization sought to provide virtual lessons on chimpanzees as part of its efforts to support educators and raise awareness.

This summer, Ms. Clingman was invited by Chimp Haven to join a committee seeking to develop and enhance their virtual lessons for educators. Ms. Clingman worked with the group to build out engaging virtual lessons on chimpanzees that focus on a sphere of chimpanzee cognition known as observational learning. “Jessica has been an invaluable resource for Chimp Haven as we’ve worked to produce new educational materials appropriate for the unique challenges that teachers and students face with virtual learning,” said Rana Smith, President and CEO of Chimp Haven. “In addition to ensuring our lessons were inspired by Next Generation Science Standards, Jessica’s expertise and thoughtful feedback helped guide the direction of many of the activities found in the materials," Smith added. The following online lessons are now available on Chimp Haven's website

  • The Chimp Life: Students will learn the basic characteristics of chimpanzees, and how chimpanzees and humans aren’t that different.
  • Chimpanzee Habits: Students will learn about habitats, ecosystems, and the basics of structural and behavioral adaptation.
  • Chimpanzee Behavior: Students will learn the basics of animal behavior, observational methodology, and the importance of data collection at Chimp Haven.
  • Enrichment: Students will learn about chimpanzee enrichment, behavior, and how the concepts apply to human needs.

Ms. Clingman is excited to use the lessons in her own cognition curriculum and sees many positive benefits to her work. "Kids really want to see the world and see what they can do to make a difference. Giving them opportunities to learn more about the world and what is around them not only helps them to learn but also encourages them to act. The nice thing about the Chimp Haven work that we've done, and what I am hopeful about with the new lessons, is that there is great potential to encourage kids everywhere to explore areas of learning and causes that are meaningful to them, and make real change in the world," Ms. Clingman noted. 

Images (from top): Jessica Clingman's fifth grade student infographics combined with a photo of Hugo courtesy of chimphaven.org, fifth graders participating in the bake sale to benefit Chimp Haven, Jessica Clingman's fifth grade student infographics on chimpanzees (full size), title slides for the four Chimp Haven virtual lessons, courtesy of chimphaven.org.

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