When one raised hand doesn’t do the trick, try the other one. This was Matthew’s strategy, as the fourth-grader tried desperately to be picked to answer the question, “What is cool about birds?”
The visitor at Jennie Reed Elementary School in Tacoma turned to someone else and moved on. Then another chance came. “If there are 175 birds in this area year-round, and there are an additional 75 migrating ones, how many birds can you guys see total?”
Matthew caught her eye. “Two hundred and fifty,” he murmured, suddenly shy.
“Here’s someone who knows his math. Very good,” she praised. It was a good day for the young scientist.
Matthew and the other students were taking part in Nature in the Classroom, an initiative of Puget Sound’s Slater Museum of Natural History. Though this lesson was about birds, the program puts a variety of animal specimens in kids’ hands.
Sarah Hurt, an Americorps member working at the Slater as an education and outreach coordinator, visits area classrooms and guides kids through activities to develop skills in analysis and judgment, and generating scientific hypotheses. The program has been running for eight years, and it reached more than 2,700 fourth- and fifth-grade students in 32 public schools last year alone.
“I just wish they could be like this all the time,” whispered Jennie Reed teacher Russell Jones as his class examined the beautifully feathered birds on sticks handed out to each student. “They’re engaged and thinking. Not everything is so hands-on.”
Seated next to Matthew at a table of four was Daveon, who had been absorbed by his own scientific inquiry. While Sarah chatted for 20 minutes at the beginning of class, he slumped in his seat and fiddled with a stiff plastic handout of bird information, trying to see if its sharp edge could slice a hole in the table.
All that changed dramatically when a shiny coal-black bird as big as his arm was handed to him on a stick. Suddenly animated, Daveon sat upright and carefully began to run the back of two fingers over the bird’s soft feathers as instructed. Beside him, Matthew stared with awe at a giant hook-billed brown bird in his own hand. For the next two hours, their table was as lively as a nest full of cuckoos.
But this wasn’t all play. It was hard work. The students, each holding a bird of an unknown species, were told to compare their birds’ beaks and claws to the drawings on the plastic handouts that described the functions of different-shaped beaks and feet. Carefully (and incredibly, it seemed, in that chaotic space of chatter and inter-table consultations), the children took measurements and made drawings of bodies, claws, and beaks. Then they were told to come up with hypotheses about their birds’ habitats and what they ate.
“Mine is 52 centimeters,” concluded Matthew midway through the class, putting down a ruler and magnifying glass to record his finding. “I got the biggest one,” he proclaimed. Daveon, by his side, stayed nose down, studying his chart.