Academic journal article Science and Children

Ornithologists by Design: Kindergarteners Design, Construct, and Evaluate Bird Feeders

Academic journal article Science and Children

Ornithologists by Design: Kindergarteners Design, Construct, and Evaluate Bird Feeders

Article excerpt

How can an engineer design a bird feeder that attracts many birds?

The challenging question is the heart of project-based learning (PBL), a teaching strategy in which students tackle real-world problems and design projects to solve them. This question drives the learning from beginning to end, giving the students a focus for the end product. Our question resulted from our kindergarten students' observations of the bird feeders in our school's bird sanctuary--conveniently located just outside our classroom windows. We received grants through a local organization to set up our sanctuary as an outside learning environment. Your school can set up a sanctuary by securing a variety of feeders donated by students and finding a place where the students have easy access to hang them. Be prepared to design structures to deter pests such as squirrels if your sanctuary is not enclosed in a courtyard.

My team teacher and I began the year by introducing our kindergarten students to the bird sanctuary and adding the word sanctuary to our vocabulary words. We taught students to work in pairs to view the birds and to mark their discoveries on the data sheets we created. Pairing students up provided an opportunity for discussion and formulating questions. They also learned to use binoculars to better identify the birds. This background knowledge prepared them to fly, and the fun began!

Sustained Inquiry

To help the students stay engaged, focused on the challenging question, and excited about the end project, we assigned them a day to observe the sanctuary each week throughout the year. Using a flip chart of birds that commonly visited the feeders, the students collected data on a bird/feeder picture graph to determine which feeders were being visited the most and which birds were visiting. Twice weekly, the data was put on a master chart (see Figure 1; NSTA Connection) for discussion. Students had been taught to respect each other's opinions and understand that all questions and comments were acceptable. During these meetings, the challenging question was read aloud to guide the conversation toward our end project. Students shared observations about the data and posed concerns in a question format for the whole group to ponder. For instance, the students noticed that the rectangular prism-shaped bird feeder (we gave the feeders shape names to incorporate the math standard of identifying solid shapes) seemed to have had the most visitors. They wondered "Why did the birds prefer this feeder over the others?" The questions, observations, and discussion comments were maintained on a chart. Throughout the project, the chart was used to review the learning, keep the learning focused, and to make any changes to their thinking based on new information.


The 21st-century classroom should look quite different from the traditional classroom, with teachers bringing authentic learning into every lesson. In our case, we observed a real bird sanctuary that students maintained. After weeks of observing the feeders; compiling data; and questioning, discussing, and rethinking our observations, the class next visited the sanctuary as "engineers" to notice bird feeder designs. Before heading outside, safety rules for the outside learning environment (see Figure 2) were discussed. As a safety precaution, students shouldn't be responsible for opening the feeders without safety goggles and gloves.

To include students' observations in our data, we recorded our findings. I took the feeders from the stands and we looked closely at how they were designed. We compared materials used, shapes, and structure of the designs (roof, perch, food intake/output, and hanging component). Next, I opened them and we looked at the food that was left inside. Some feeders were empty, some almost empty, or others still nearly full all corresponding to the data collected. Why? This question was posed to the students who eagerly began to yell out their thoughts. …

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