The first grade mammal study is a celebrated tradition at Little Calhoun. Young students become researchers in this interdisciplinary unit that explores science, literacy, art, math and social justice all through the lens of animals. As students become immersed in their work, they explore a variety of resources and collect a wealth of information. At the project’s end, first graders display their work in a museum-style experience for parents and peers known as the Mammal Museum. Through the course of their work they not only become experts on their chosen mammals, but they develop research skills that will serve them throughout their academic careers.
Investigation and inquiry touches every aspect of this project. The classes begin with a trip to the American Museum of Natural History to learn about various mammals with the goal of finding a subject for their study. Once they have their subject lined up, they aim to absorb as much information as possible. As they begin their exploration, students are taught the step-by-step process of research. Reading through books and web resources, they gather information and practice note-taking, organization and editing. As they learn more about their mammal, they become exposed to scientific terms and concepts. Study of their animal’s anatomy, classification, habitats, place of origin and diet give these young researchers a well rounded view of their mammal.
The study of these mammals offers first graders a lens through which to explore a variety of topics. Through their work, students expand their vocabularies, practice writing skills and explore new math concepts. Classes create graphs to display the varying sizes of their animals and practice using the greater than/less than symbols to compare their mammals’ size to that of other mammals.
Social justice is also a key element of their work as classes discover the conservation status of their mammals and learn what can be done to preserve animal populations. While students learn about the impact humans have had on mammals around the world, they are introduced to the work of Dr. Jane Goodall. First graders write letters to Goodall, thanking her for her work and offering words of support for future conservation efforts.
The wealth of knowledge students acquire inspires the creative elements of the project. With information gathered, they get to work on constructing sculptures of their subject, taking into consideration the anatomy of their mammal as well as how the animal might behave in their natural habitat. Later, they create detailed dioramas of the mammal’s habitat—but not before more research is conducted. A return trip to the American Museum of Natural History gives students the opportunity to observe the museum’s famed dioramas and explore the information that a diorama can communicate, such as the relationships between predator and prey, or an animal’s habitat. Students draw inspiration from what they see at the museum for their own dioramas, which provide vivid details about how the mammal lives in the wild and accurately represent the information students worked so hard to collect.
Throughout the project, first graders demonstrate their newfound knowledge through the creation of research books, sculptures, paintings and detailed dioramas. After months of hard work, they are ready to share their knowledge with the wider school community, displaying their work at Mammal Museum. Students take their places and excitedly greet visitors, sharing information about each of their chosen mammals. Their pride and ownership over their learning is evident as students excitedly show off their knowledge to parents, teachers and peers.
When listening to first graders share their knowledge with such detail and enthusiasm, it is clear that the mammal study serves as a testament to how much one can learn when given the freedom to explore and the tools to seek out information. Students are left with a deep sense of pride in their accomplishments and walk away having built foundational skills that will serve them as they move on to second grade and well beyond.