An introduction to classification has long been a staple of the fifth-grade curriculum in Burlington. But with a traditional classification test feeling a bit stale the teachers at Fox Hill looked to the Science Center for a way to spice things up with less rote memory and more application of understanding. Enter: the “Animal Shelter Project”. Built on a fabricated story of chaos at the Science Center and the immediate need for a wide variety of animal shelters, students were charged with engineering enclosures that would restore order in the Science Center while providing a healthy place for our feature-creatures to live comfortably.
Step 1: Identify Problem
To begin, the challenge was introduced to the students by an exasperated version of myself, explaining the disarray at the Science Center and a need for new enclosures that were carefully designed and constructed with each animal in mind. The Design Process model continues to be the Science Center’s model of choice, and was introduced along with the challenge. General guidelines for the project and due dates were issued, and students were given additional time to ask me questions about the challenge they faced. With roughly 10 minutes remaining in the first class, students met with their pre-arranged groups to decide on an animal and discuss next steps.
Step 2: Gather Information
With the disciplinary core idea centered around the diversity of life’s adaptations and the needs life must meet in their environment to prosper (LS4.C – Adaptations) students were first given time to identify the creature they would be designing a habitable enclosure for and the environment necessary for such a creature to thrive. Research by team members was done to better familiarize one another to the special conditions each creature lived in and the ways in which they behaved and had adapted over time to fit their ecological niche. Most of this research was done through print and digital animal encyclopedias.
Step 3: Brainstorm and Plan a Design
With the necessary knowledge gathered to move forward, the planning stage was next. All students were asked to brainstorm their own design and draw it out on paper, including labels for required materials at home. Once in class, groups assessed their members designs, encouraged to find inspiration from all the good qualities shared in their members’ work, before drafting a new design that would act as the blueprint for their model. Groups needed to ensure that animals in their enclosure had access to 1) food 2) water 3) shelter and 4) exercise / comforts that would allow them to live comfortably. Designs also had to be safe for both animal and keeper and ensure the animal could not escape on its own.
Step 4: Build – Evaluate – Redesign
With all the planning work done, student groups proceeded to construct their model enclosures from a variety of materials supplied by the Science Center and students own homes. Recycled goods were encouraged and all assembly work was performed at school to ensure student work and avoid frivolously construction material purchasing! With models assembled, students were then given the opportunity to have their enclosures reviewed by peers before receiving and giving both warm and cool feedback. A redesign cycle was then initiated before any final stamps of approval were given by teachers or team members.
Step 5: Communicate Solution
With much of the heavy lifting done, students were then given time to orchestrate a brief presentation that would be shared with third-graders learning about ecosystems and providing an audience to the fifth-graders in the hours leading up to Thanksgiving break. Roughly 40 minutes was spent letting groups of third-graders approach and ask groups different questions about their enclosures while members extolled the virtues of their work, highlighting the ways their enclosure met the essential needs of their creature and then some.
Reflections and Resources
As I met with each group and received the royal treatment from students eager to share how they would save the Science Center, the excitement in the room was palpable and it was evident that the Animal Enclosure Project had admirably performed its job while doing something our paper-tests rarely do, engage students in a way that the work they do is meaningful to them.
I can’t thank fifth-grade teachers, Jamie Jaffe and George Norman enough for their critical role in this challenge; doing the day-to-day work of moving explicitly through the design process while carefully balancing the work with both engineering and life science learning goals. They are also responsible for some of the student process worksheets such as the design template and presentation outlines highlighted in pictures above. As Burlington reviews its curriculum to better fit revised Massachusetts performance expectations, project based assessments that ask students to apply knowledge in meaningful ways will become more and more important to the students, teachers, and curriculum as a whole. I continue to be excited by the promise of our revised standards if this is the kind of teacher and student work it stimulates!