These Teachers Turned a Playground Game into a Full Blown Place-Based Project

It was during a Teton Science Schools led workshop last November that 2nd grade teachers, Megan Harrell and Trista McMartin, were presented the task of designing a phenomenon-based lesson that integrated Place Based Education (PBE) design principles with their state’s science standards. The assignment came as no surprise the title of the workshop was PBE and Wyoming Science Standards after all but putting together all of the elements in a way that would utilize the ideas, activities, and lessons already in their teaching wheelhouse, be feasible within their school’s resources, and engage students in a powerful and meaningful way presented a challenge that would require some critical and creative thinking.

Now, for those of you who are sitting in front of your screen asking yourself, “What’s a phenomenon-based lesson?”, “What’s a PBE design principle?”, let us explain.

A little bit of context

Put simply, a phenomenon-based lesson is a lesson that:

“encourages students to ask questions, discover connections, and design models to make sense of what they observe (the phenomenon).” (source)

It’s a lesson style that “taps into students’ natural desire to make sense of their world” and foster’s an approach to finding answers through reason and inquiry versus the “learn and spit back out” approach so commonly seen in traditional classrooms. Introducing it, can be as simple as opening a jar of essential oil in the classroom and asking students, “How do you think the smell travels from the jar to your nose?” or as complex as wondering, “How did our solar system form?”

When we talk about PBE design principles, we’re talking about a set of six core principles that can used to inform the development of place-based learning in any setting. They are: Local to Global Context, Learner-Centered, Inquiry-Based, Design Thinking, Community as Classroom, and Interdisciplinary Approach.

Source: What is Place Based Education and Why Does it Matter? By Getting Smart in partnership with eduInnovation and Teton Science Schools

From Training to Implementation

Over the next four days of the workshop, pulling from their knowledge of the new Wyoming Science Standards, Place-Based Principles, and their own ideas and activities, Megan and Trista collaborated to design a lesson that would explore a phenomenon prevalent in their neck of the woods: Why elk aren’t seen living around Northpark Elementary? They spent the following three months putting it into practice. Inspired by their process, we asking Megan and Trista to share the journey they took their students on to explore this local phenomenon.

The Game

When we introduced the unit before Christmas break, we started off by teaching the students a game. We didn’t really tell them why we were playing this game or what it had to do with the science lessons that were coming up, but the students really didn’t care why.  We didn’t talk about learning objectives or what standards we were meeting and none of the students even stopped to ask. The game was called “Oh Deer!” and introduced the students to the concept of habitat and survival by exploring what essential elements living things need in order to survive in a fun and engaging way.

We broke the students up into three different groups that were roughly the same size – one group pretended to be deer, another group pretended to be elements found in nature, and the third group got to be “judges.”  The judges were given the jobs of watching their deer to see if they survived the winter or not. We discussed what it means when the deer were not able to get the elements they needed during the game and what happens when they have what they need to survive.  The game also showed students what happens when predators are introduced into their habitats or if there is a drought.  

The first time we tried to play it, it didn’t seem very successful. We were outside, it was nice out,  and students seemed more excited about running around and chasing each other than they were about what elements animals need to survive. But, when we came inside to teach our lessons — three classrooms full of kids into one classroom — and we presented our slide show, the most amazing thing happened… the kids were quiet and listening!

The BIG Question

We started off by presenting this slide:

We told them, “As we explored the mountain, we saw several different signs of life.  The largest animal that we saw was an elk. The smallest animals we noticed were birds.  We saw a couple of elk that were walking around towards the top of the mountain and we began wondering: Why do we see pronghorns living around our school instead of elk?”  This became our big question that we wanted to have our students focus on through this entire unit.

Understanding what students know

After presenting the students with this information, it was time to give students a chance to show us what they knew about animals and their habitats.  We told the students that they were going to get copies of two pictures of two very different habitats. Our art teacher, Mr. Harkins, drew us two beautiful pictures for us to use during this unit.  

We showed the students the first picture and asked them what they noticed about the picture – some students focused on the colors, while others noticed the mountains in the background.  However, there were a few students that said things like, “That looks like our Nature Area!” and “Those look like sagebrush.”

Then we showed the students a second picture and asked them how it was different than the other picture.  

Some students focused on the difference in colors, whereas others talked about how this picture had water and the other one didn’t.  When we asked the students if there were any similarities between the two pictures, they had a little trouble coming up with many. The first one that someone noticed was that both picture were outdoors and sadly, that was about it.  Needless to say that it wasn’t the answer we had in mind.

Trying not to give the students too much information, we stopped there and told the students that they were going to have the opportunity to color some pictures that looked very similar to these. We also told the students that they were going to have some animals to color and add to their pictures.  We weren’t going to tell the students what animals to put where or if they were right or wrong.

Here are several examples from our pre-unit assessments.

An interdisciplinary approach

Our next step in implementing our lesson was to create field journals. Students were given a chance to draw pictures of elk and pronghorn in their field journals; as well as to record facts throughout the lessons.  We talked about the fact that the students were being scientists, not artists and that their pictures didn’t have to be perfect. We started using these field journals by watching two short videos that gave the students information about the two animals we have been studying.  The first time we watched the videos, we just watched to learn about each species. The second time we watched, we would pause and let the students take notes every once in a while, writing down the important information from each video.

We tried to make sure that the unit we were teaching was cross curricular. In addition to the videos, we also gave students the opportunity to explore plants and looks for signs of wildlife in the nature area behind our school. Some students were given a “pocket microscope” while other students were given iPads where they could collect and share data through the iNaturalist app, or cameras to take photos.  The entire second grade walked around the nature area to explore, make observations in their field journals, and look at the environment in a new way.

Bringing the community into the classroom

In February, we had Lucy from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department visit and give a presentation to the students about Wyoming wildlife and habitats, as well as important tips regarding animal safety and conservation.  Students were very engaged and loved sharing the knowledge that they had learned thus far. She brought various animal hides and specimens for the students to hold and observe. Having an expert come in and share their experiences with the students helped them realize that what we are exploring with elk and pronghorn can transfer over to other animals and habitats.  It also gave students an opportunity to learn about career opportunities and community volunteer projects associated with the Wyoming Game and Fish.

Hopes to take things global

While this lesson is mostly about pronghorn versus elk and a sagebrush versus. an aspen habitat, we will continue to investigate plants and animals in different habitats. This lesson was a way to teach students how to make observations and compare and contrast plants, animals, and habitats in our own community so students could relate to the concepts being investigated. We would like to take these same concepts and incorporate the place-based principal “Local to Global Context” into a similar investigation but on a global scale.

Interested in learning more about Place-Based Teacher Workshops and  Professional Development  for your school?

Learn More Here


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