Insect Keepers: A Unit for First-And Second-Grade Students Integrates Life Science and Technological Design

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Insects are fascinating creatures--especially when you and your students get up close and personal with them! During a combined first--and second-grade (DJ class author study of Eric Carle, the children were captivated by the amazing organisms characterized in his quintet of books, which include The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Very Lonely Firefly, The Quiet Cricket, The Very Busy Spider, and The Very Clumsy Click Beetle. "These are all books about insects, right?" commented one child. What is an insect? Insects, spiders--are they the same? Questions such as these, coupled with children's natural curiosity, initiated a classroom experience based on a process scientists use when conducting investigations and based on the stages of technological design addressed in the National Science Education Standards (NSES; NRC 1996).

Drawing on the NSES, we facilitated an inquiry-based investigation with an emphasis on identification of the different types of insects found in the school yard, their characteristics, their habitat, and what they eat, while engaging the children in problem-solving skills and technological design. Eric Carle was the springboard that launched us into this world of adventure and student discovery.

Brainstorm and Investigate

To determine the students' prior knowledge of insects, we brainstormed together: "Insects are like ... ladybugs!" "I saw a grasshopper and it had large legs and big eyes!" "We have fire ants in our backyard ... my mom told me not to touch them!" and "Insects are little creatures that crawl around on lots of little legs, right?" We listed the names of each response (ladybug, caterpillar, spider, and so on). From the brainstorming session, students concluded that insects should have the same basic characteristics. Students were ready to draw conclusions about the characteristics of insects.

The investigation began with some plastic insects and spiders and several magnifying glasses. The teachers talked about how scientists use magnifying glasses or hand lenses to observe things more closely. The children immediately noticed that the insects looked bigger when they used the magnifying glasses and observed the differences in appearance. "This one has six legs, but this one has eight." This was a teachable moment to focus on mathematical terms, concepts, and skills. We asked the children, "Which insect has more/less legs?" and "How many more legs does a spider have than an insect?" to reinforce the mathematical terms and concepts of more, less, and more than. In comparing numbers of legs, we invited children to simply count using one-to-one correspondence and "counting on." To extend this minilesson, children were encouraged to consider how many legs would be found on two or three insects? How about one insect and one spider? The children enjoyed the challenge--some drew pictures and some used counters to represent and solve the problems.

Other children chimed in with various differences, until finally, somewhat frustrated, Jackson said, "These are not all insects!" He based his conclusion on the differences he and his classmates observed--Jackson stated that insects must have six legs and the spider had eight legs. His classmates agreed with his conclusion so we asked the children how to find out if this was a true statement. Books and the computer were named as good sources of information and were used to determine the distinguishing characteristics of all insects (see NSTA Connection). Students learned that some other organisms we think are insects aren't really insects at all! They learned about the larger group of organisms called arthropods.

The excitement of our study prompted one of our students to bring in a cricket basket that she called an "insect keeper." This "insect keeper" gave the children the idea for an "insect hunt." One student quickly responded, "We all need one of those things!" This set the stage for a truly meaningful experience that was guided by the children! …