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Feathers, Dead Baby Birds, and Eggshells: A Most Authentic Investigation

It is not often that an outdoor science educator has unlimited unstructured time at a nature preserve with a small group of only six 8-12 year olds who are stoked on exploring, asking tons of questions, and creating their own possible explanations. I was blessed with this experience and it has left a visceral impression with me that will last a long time.
Taking careful consideration of the evidence
On the second day of our Adventure Scientists day camp we began the day heading out to a new area of the nature preserve we hadn’t yet explored. The students practiced their habits of a scientist recalling the skills we had learned the previous day. Utilizing their hand lenses and new language of “I notice…”, “I wonder…”, “it reminds me of…” they set out exploring the grassy peninsula stretching into the lake and the thick willows. There was not a time limit set, only some geographic boundaries. They began to find delicious smelling orchids, interesting textures of plants, and a few crime scenes (dead animals). That which caught their attention the most were feathers, egg shells, and a couple dead decomposing baby birds and the most focused investigation commenced!

Artifacts found while exploring 
Inquiry fever as we know it is perpetuated by interesting stuff, permission and encouragement to explore, as well as an inquiry mindset and skills. These kids were so engrossed in inquiry fever it was nearly a textbook example. I did not know what the interesting stuff was they were going to find, but I did know we were in a very special place that harbors ecologically rich habitat with lots of interesting stuff.

Really cool artifacts were collected by the students and carefully placed in the middle of our learning circle. The field guides quickly were requested for and the team began to dig in deep to their investigation. On the white board I drew up three categories for them to record data in their journals: questions, evidence, and explanations; a page for each category. They observed more closely, discussed with each other, and compared their thoughts to the field guides, they recorded their questions, listed and described their evidence, and later created possible explanations. They were so into it they asked to use advanced field guides to glean more detailed information from.
Making close observations
As the instructor, I continually asked more questions of the students. When they thought they may have figured out what type of birds these artifacts were from, I’d point out another observation, ask them if they agreed with each other, had them describe their evidence, more thoroughly argue their claims, and kept them observing and engaged in the investigation. I noticed that if I had agreed with any of their explanations and confirmed they were right, the entire investigation would have come to a halt and the learning would have ceased. At one point, about half an hour into the investigation, one boy asked when it was time for a snack and was quickly told by his fellow student “how could you want to stop this, this is real science; we’re not done!”

The student level bird field guides we were using did not include images of each species’ eggs or babies. Yet, with the evidence the students had (habitat, current bird calls, artifacts) and the research materials they used, they came to their own explanations and they collectively agreed that these were baby meadowlarks. They were so proud of their work, confident in their process, and excited that they got to do their own unique unplanned real authentic scientific investigation.
Conducting research in the field
Being part of this experience, learning as an instructor what it means to truly allow for student-centered learning to ensue and to guide the process was powerful. The ownership and self-directed curiosity and thorough research process left an impression not only on the students, but also on myself. I couldn’t have planned this investigation or created the artifacts in their unique habitat; it had to happen authentically. 
A collaborative team investigation
Did it matter if they had the correct species as their final explanation; not at all. It was important that they had strong evidence based on their in-depth observations to make their claims and explanations. It was also important that they worked together discussing their thinking and recording their thoughts as well as their questions. That was the goal, to practice the habits of a scientist. At the end of it we celebrated their work and talked about just how cool it was to do real science and not some activity that I had pre-planned.

Growing up on a farm, I have a lot of experience with ducks and chickens including raising them from fresh hatchlings. With this first hand experience I was 99.9% sure the dead baby birds the students found were baby ducks and eggshells where from ducks too. Yet I never told them (not even at the end of the day). Instead, I served as their guide (guiding the process of science, not species identification) asking for more detailed observations, confirming if they agreed with each other or not and why, and encouraging them to ask more questions. I encouraged arguing using their evidence by asking BFF questions. I was so inspired by their excitement and focused attention I allowed the exploration and investigation to continue for more than an hour.

This was one of the most meaningful teaching moments in my career. To be privileged with unstructured time at a nature preserve with a small group of students made it a possibility. Being confident that it is okay not knowing what the students will find and what they may be curious about was also part of the success. Having a strong background in the process of science, the habits of a scientist, and the practices of science; and being able to recall and use them in the moment on the spot within a real-life experience was the most important to the success of this learning opportunity. I am grateful for the new pedagogical skills I have gained during the past year that have reinvigorated my spirit and love for guiding kids (and adults too) to be in a state of authentic curiosity and wonder.


Author, Sarah R. Johnson is the founder of Wild Rose Education. an innovative environmental education business providing place-based learner-centered educator workshops, youth leadership programming, and environmental education consulting.
Notes for fellow outdoor science educators:
Day 1 activities included: Hand Lens Intro, I Notice I Wonder It Reminds Me Of, Adaptation Intro-Live!, Nature Science Investigators, Discovery Swap, and To Each Its Own. These activities built a foundation for the beginning of Day 2 to be successful. It was tough to follow our authentic investigation with anything as cool which made for a less exciting afternoon for the students.

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