Surfing with Sharks

img_1691In January, the fifth grade ACT students got busy diving into their exciting new learning exploration; and I’m quite pleased to report it goes much deeper than that popular earworm song that has swept the nation!

They were introduced to their ‘Surfing with Sharks’ unit and transformed themselves into Icthyologists (ik-thee-OL-o-jist). ACT Teacher, Dr. Julie Clark, aims to provide a rich environment of full immersion in their topic and these few weeks of being a “person who studies sharks” has been an exciting and engaging experience for all. Not to mention, this is an opportunity that most students wouldn’t have exposure to until high school or college!

One of the first activities included “adopting a shark” from the Ocearch website to track and watch throughout the unit. The class also read the book, Shark Lady, a true story that highlights the life and work of Eugenie Clark, a renowned ichthyologist known for both her research on shark behavior and her dedication to changing the common misconceptions people have about sharks. 

This was a great way to lay the groundwork of learning about these fascinating, and often misunderstood, creatures. After spending some time introducing their “adopted” sharks to the class through a short Google Slides presentation, the students enjoyed an opportunity to watch an Eyewitness movie about sharks in class.img_1689

Taking their research a little bit deeper, the students set off to learn about a specific species of shark and create a Weebly website on which to display what they learn. They also used Khan Academy to begin some computer coding lessons; skills they would use to include their own animation that they create using Java Script.

Current events informed the unit as well; students recently watched this news story about how research into the shark genome is helping scientists with cancer research. They have 50% more DNA than we do, and because of this, the shark’s DNA is constantly repairing itself to prevent gene mutations that can cause disease, like cancer. Helping students to see the relevance of their study and connecting those learnings to real life inspires students to become activists and learn more.

Screen Shot 2019-02-28 at 5.09.02 AMThe shining moment of wearing the Icthyologist ‘hat’, is the dissection at the end of the unit. In order to be prepared for this, the class spent time learning about the external and internal anatomy of the dogfish shark (Squalus acanthias). To start, the students learned about the anatomical directions that scientists and those in the medical field use when referring to different areas of an organism’s body. Then spent time exploring the shark’s internal, external anatomy and special sensing mechanisms (helping them detect movements in the water). Students were also challenged to put together a three-dimensional model showing the various internal organs. All of this laying the groundwork for a successful dissection.

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img_1690Dr. Clark loves to push the comfort level of her students in the name of learning new things,  and for some, dissection day itself was a challenging experience. As the classroom transformed into a laboratory, she takes the opportunity to remind the class of the ACT theme this year: Challenge Accepted!…being committed to finding learning in all experiences, and ultimately, if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you. The challenge was accepted and curiosity took over.

All of the shark specimens that were dissected were females, thus, students learn about reproduction in these animals as well. Spiny Dogfish sharks are ovoviviparous — meaning that the embryo develops from an egg inside the mother and is nourished by the yolk sac, not the mother, but the mother still has a live birth.  With parent volunteer helpers, the students took their knowledge and identified the body parts they had studied and were so excited to find the surprise of little shark pups when they were dissecting! One group found 5 baby shark pups! As sharks do not chew their food – students also discovered a fully intact fish! After they completed the students could also do some extra exploration on the gills and eyeballs.

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Intact Fish – Baby Shark (Doo Doo) – Yolk Sac

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I am thankful for devoted educators like Dr. Clark, who strive to open the minds of students to an array of learning possibilities, while challenging them to grow academically, socially, and emotionally. Our academically talented students are constantly provided learning opportunities that present them with the chance to explore, create, problem solve, and above all, try new things. I am so pleased that we have continued to invest in providing unique and thought-provoking learning opportunities for these children. It is always very exciting to see what she has going on in her classroom. Learn more about ACT here.

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Rats! Birds! Gophers! … What’s in an Owl Pellet, Alex?

You may not spend much time thinking about what owls eat, but for the past month 4th grade ACT students have been doing just that. To kick off the unit students spent the majority of their time building their background knowledge about barn owls, their physical and behavioral characteristics, and, in particular, their unique digestive tracts. [Did you know that owls are not the only birds that throw up pellets, but because the digestive juices of an owl’s stomach aren’t as acidic, owl pellets are unique in containing the bones of their previous meal along with fur, feathers, or insect parts? Yum!]

Students further prepared for their dissection by thinking of themselves as archaeologists, hypothesizing about what they might find. ACT teacher, Julie Clark shares the details: “Before dissecting the pellets, students learned all about barn owls, about trophic levels, and the spot the barn owls take in the food chain [the apex predator]. We study their unique digestive tracts to prepare for the dissection noting that owls cannot digest fur and bones, so these are regurgitated in the form of a pellet. Later in the unit, we reassembled the bones in an artistic picture, creatively writing about the barn owl’s last 24 hours.”

When our ACT students received their pellets, they made observations about the size and physical attributes as well as hypotheses about what type of animal bones they may find. Students identify the various bones they find to prepare for their artistic rendering of the owl’s prey. [BTW, Owl pellet dissection isn’t just for school anymore! Thanks to pellet.com, you can purchase your own and try this at home! What a perfect [and affordable!] way to keep the kids engaged over the summer!]

Thankfully, this won’t be the students last encounter with the fascinating owl pellet. “The owl pellet dissection is revisited, in a way, when the students get to 5th grade.  At 5th grade, the kids study sharks in a unit called Surfing with Sharks.  At the end of the unit, they dissect Spiny Dogfish Sharks.  This year, the shark dissections were AMAZING [this isn’t a typical dissection that students encounter until the high school/college level — for example, we hosted a Grand Valley Professor during one of our shark dissections as he dissects sharks with his vertebrate anatomy class].”

“After spending time reviewing how owl pellets are formed, we were able to analyze our pellets by determining their masses, creating a scientific drawing, and noting other observations. The students made predictions of how many bones they expected to find, and we even analyzed our data by finding the mean, median, mode, and range of the owl pellet masses. After this important work, the students set their sights on extracting all of the bones from their pellets. This was very exciting and the students were pleasantly surprised to see that many of their pellets
contained more than one skull [the highest number of skulls found in one pellet was 7!].”

You might think that inspecting the regurgitated dinners of barn owls was enough, but not for our ACT 4th graders! The unit culminated in a field trip to the Outdoor Discovery Center and their Dewitt Birds of Prey Center. “It was AMAZING. First, we hiked out to the Birds of Prey exhibit, noting all the adaptations that plants and animals make during the winter months. Then, students had time to view the birds at the center [all of which were injured in some way and cannot survive on their own in the wild]. They saw hawks, owls, two bald eagles, and a peregrine falcon. The staff then took us into the classroom onsite where they showed us a horned owl, peregrine falcon, and a red-tailed hawk up close. The students and parents were thrilled to learn so much about these amazing animals.”

Ms Clark knows that these types of experiences make a lasting impact on students. “I have been so proud of the work of these great fourth graders.  They learned a lot in just six class sessions.  The students’ response to the project has been great.  When students first give me “the look” when I announce that we will be dissecting “owl puke” I remind them of two of our Core Values in ACT: Stay Open and Take the Risk.  Inquirers want to know.  We learn with enthusiasm and always seek to try new things!”

“I am proud that Jenison Public Schools understands the value and importance of ACT.  Where other districts may have had to cut or scale back their programming for academically talented students, JPS has continued to invest in providing unique and thought-provoking learning opportunities for these children.  When challenging academically talented students, it is essential that students are presented with opportunities to not only learn about subjects that they wouldn’t necessarily see for a few years, but to also afford them chances to explore, create, problem solve, and above all, try new things.”  Parents can learn all about ACT here.

Thank you, Ms. Clark, for keeping our students engaged and curious! Our district is better because of the ways you’re preparing students for new experiences, problem-solving, and thinking creatively!