Educator Spotlight: Building a Bird’s-Eye View of the World

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Kelly Blais, this week’s Educator of the Week, strives to help her students develop a global perspective and a sense of ownership of their learning. She challenged her 8th-grade science students to design a bird adapted to a specific biome, considering environmental pressures that could threaten the bird’s survival. Kelly is a Nat Geo Educator Certification Ambassador.

Kelly Blais_Photo courtesy Kelly Blais
Kelly Blais teaches 8th-grade science at David R. Cawley Middle School in Hooksett, NH. Photo courtesy Kelly Blais

​You adapted National Geographic’s Build a Meerkat activity into your Build a Bird capstone project for the Nat Geo Educator Certification Program. How did this project take shape?

We were learning about adaptations and the environmental pressures faced by living things around the world. I was inspired by the way the meerkat activity discusses specific meerkat features and their functions. Since my students are more familiar with birds, that’s what I used as a vehicle for their learning. We did a lab where students explored the functionality of different beak shapes for various food types and then designed their own beaks. For the final challenge, they were assigned biomes, researched the environmental pressures living things face in that environment, and designed a bird that was well-adapted and could survive.

A bird designed by a student
Students created birds adapted to a specific environment and defended their design choices. Photo by Kelly Blais 

It sounds like you gave students many hands-on opportunities to design, build, and test their creations. How do you think this helped them engage with the topic?

It ties into my own teaching philosophy, which is one of ownership and authenticity. Students think science is just what happens in class or in our textbooks, but science is everywhere in life. I strive to connect our curriculum to their lives so they can see that what they’re learning in class is real, it matters, and they can make a difference. By showing them those real-world connections and giving them strategic choice, students become deeply invested in the outcome. That’s when meaningful learning takes place. When I try to create authentic learning, the hands-on experiences come naturally.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here. 

What do you hope students take away from your class in terms of their approach to science?

 I constantly try to help them build a more global perspective and show them how we’re all connected. This project is just one piece in that puzzle for them. Using birds as the constant across different regions of the world helps them gain a deeper appreciation for what living things in those areas face.

At the end of every assignment, we ask, “What can we do to take this one step further?” With this project, we started talking about the people living in those different biomes. How do they deal with those pressures? How has that changed over time? We start giving students these different pieces so that eventually they’ll be able to put it all together and see the world for what it is: the people living in it, how we’re connected, and what our needs are.

Biome Research
Students researched biomes to understand what environmental pressures their birds would face. Photo by Kelly Blais 

​What inspires and informs your teaching?

I seek out experiences that enrich what I teach in class. When students can see someone talking about their own experiences, or sharing pictures they took, it becomes more personal than a textbook or an article. It helps to open up their view: “It’s real. I know someone who was there. And if I know someone who was there, then I could be there too.”

I have a wall in my classroom called Science in my World, full of pictures from trips that my students and I have taken. It helps show them that science isn’t just the four walls of the classroom. Science is part of their world.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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