Strategy Share: Inspiring Students to Become Nature Detectives

The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Kacy Lebby, a third-grade teacher at TOPS K-8 School in Seattle, Washington, after her expedition to Alaska. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Kacy Lebby
Kacy Lebby teaches third grade at TOPS K-8 School in Seattle, Washington. Photo by Carlos Navarro

“Scientists don’t always know the answer, do they, Ms. Lebby?” a student asked from the back of the room during our investigation.

No, they certainly do not. Searching for answers is where an explorer’s story begins, and that is what I hoped students would understand from our “Nature Detectives” investigation. It is tricky for a third-grader to understand that sometimes the most valuable moments are when you do not know the answer, especially given the strong culture in schools around knowing the “right” answer.

Rewind to the summer before, when I traveled to the Tongass National Forest with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. While walking in the woods, my group came across a crime scene: a salmon lying lifeless, with no scrapes or scratches, in the middle of the trail under the dense canopy of Sitka spruce and western red cedars. Our whole group was puzzled. We looked around for animal tracks, surveyed the area, asked questions, and ran through all the possible scenarios for why this salmon was caught out of the water. In that moment, the group and I became scientists, detectives, and naturalists filled with the curiosity of third-graders.

Student Work Water
Students examined a photo from Kacy’s expedition and recorded their observations and questions. Photo by Kacy Lebby

Back in my third-grade class, I set the stage for the mystery with a photo of the crime scene. We also examined a map of the area and watched a short video that I had taken on the walk. Thinking like explorers, we looked at maps of the area, zoomed in on the photo, asked questions, tossed out ideas, and ultimately came up with reasoning for why that salmon was there. The ability to accept uncertainty and hold onto questions was a powerful lesson for my students.

I asked guiding questions for the whole group to discuss, stopping at each question to elicit students’ responses and giving them a chance to track their own thinking on a note catcher handout. I asked, “What do you notice? What do you wonder? What other information would you need to solve this mystery, and how could you get that information?” During the discussion, I wrote down students’ responses and gave credit to those who shared.

Student Work Bird.JPG
Students drew pictures of possible solutions to the mystery of the dead salmon. Photo by Kacy Lebby

I was surprised by the variety of perspectives expressed by the students in the room. Their ideas for the culprit of this salmon’s death ranged from a bald eagle or bear to a flood or even a person. It was especially exciting to hear from students who do not typically share with the whole class and were now excited to discuss their ideas.

This lesson could easily be used to guide students’ investigation of any natural puzzle. I used it to help my students practice skills needed for a larger schoolyard exploration. It could be adapted to focus on a mystery from a unique landscape or from an ecosystem within your community. To get started in your own setting, check out my tips below.

Tips for Designing a “Nature Detective” Activity

  • Challenge students to solve a schoolyard mystery based on a question posed by you or brainstormed by students.
    • Examples:
      • Why does a puddle always form under that swing set?
      • What digs that hole?
      • What would be the best place in our school, classroom, or school yard to grow tomatoes?
      • Where does rainwater go?
  • Ask students to bring in their own images, diagrams, or drawings of nature’s mysteries from home or from their own experiences.
  • Follow up an investigation with a mock trial, asking students to pose as lawyers and present their evidence for a given explanation to the class.
Student Work Bear
Students drew pictures of possible solutions to the mystery of the dead salmon. Photo by Kacy Lebby

Lindblad and NGS

The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.

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