Educator Spotlight: A Student-Led Exploration of Local Species

Andrea Sayler fostered her students’ curiosity about the natural world by holding a BioBlitz in the nature preserve near their school. A BioBlitz is an event that brings together community members to find and identify as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time. Andrea’s students used the data they gathered to develop research projects on flora or fauna that interested them. They shared their findings with their school community.

Andrea Sayler is a learning liaison through Loma Linda University in California. She provides professional development and teacher support on STEM curriculum. Previously, Andrea taught multi-grade middle-school science at Woodlands Adventist School in Ponoka, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Landon Sayler

For your National Geographic Educator Certification capstone, students completed a modified BioBlitz around your school and identified plant and animal species. What was the most surprising find during the BioBlitz you held with your students?

During the BioBlitz, students jotted notes in their field journals about their observations. Our BioBlitz area is familiar to our students, so it was interesting to see them explore it with a new perspective. Students consulted their field notes to guide their collection of water and soil samples, as well as small plant clippings. They also took pictures for more in-depth observations back in the classroom. We consulted iNaturalist and other primary sources to identify and learn about what we found.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here

Our most surprising find during the BioBlitz was a mating pair of bluebirds, which are rare where we live in central Alberta, Canada. We discovered the birds had a nest inside our school’s outdoor hockey shed. Students started questioning if migratory paths might be changing and why that might be.

You mentioned that you took a constructivist approach to this project, engaging your students in actively building knowledge through their experiences. How did you incorporate this approach, and how did it benefit students?

During the BioBlitz, students used iNaturalist to identify frogs and other animals they spotted. Photo by Andrea Sayler

I wanted my students to apply more discovery in their learning. For this project, I facilitated and guided students through their self-directed learning opportunities. Students held the BioBlitz and surveyed the nature preserve. From there, they developed their own driving questions for their research. I held students accountable regarding how they were going to expand their learning and share their findings.

For my project, students were able to use their strengths and interests to drive their passion and curiosity. For example, some students focused their research projects on animals, while other students felt drawn to take the angle of conservation. I also appreciated that through this project, my shy and quiet students became more active participants in their learning; they felt empowered.

“I wanted to open students’ eyes to the wilderness in their own backyards,” says Andrea. Photo by Andrea Sayler

What advice do you have for teachers looking to apply constructivism in their classrooms?

My advice is to tap into the interests of your students, and start small. Do something tangible in your classroom that is student-directed.

I’d also say that teaching multi-age groups lends itself well to constructivist learning. The students in my class ranged from fifth grade to ninth grade. It can be a challenge to meet every child where he or she is, but the constructivist approach allows the teacher to step aside while students pursue their interests and learn from each other.

Students developed their own perspectives while working in natural settings. Photo by Andrea Sayler

Could you expand on how your students benefited from multi-age learning?

Students in multi-age classrooms benefit from having perspectives from a variety of ages. They learn from each other. In the case of my project, younger students met with “buddies” (older students) to help them deal with challenges they were facing in their research. Having a more experienced peer help them was a big benefit to students because it provided a safe space to ask questions and get advice.

The richness that resulted from student involvement across grade levels and ages provided a more well-rounded picture of our local ecosystem than we could have achieved in a single-grade class.

I’d love to hear about your classroom chant, “hands on, minds on.”

We created this chant as a class. “Hands on” is a reminder to keep our learning tangible and meaningful, while “minds on” encourages us to be mindful and fully engaged.

Whenever we noticed that our minds were shifting to something off-task, either a student or a teacher would start the chant. Since we were a multi-age classroom, students were more independent and invested in their own learning, and they took greater responsibility for checking in with themselves.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Interested in joining Andrea as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at NatGeoEd.org/Certification.

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