Designing a Unit on Penguins

By Maggie Glogowski

Five girls, fifteen elementary school students, five weeks, and an infinite number of penguins. Those are all the ingredients needed to create and execute an amazing afterschool science club. With students between the grades kindergarten and second grade, our group thought that discussing and learning all about penguins would be a perfect way to incorporate science in a fun and exciting way. After a few weeks of brainstorming, researching, and planning Penguin Plunge was ready to dive deep into the life of penguins. As a group of teaching students we came up with five topics that we wanted to cover during our Penguin Plunge:

1)   Introduction- Comparing penguins to humans and Know, Want to know, and Learn (KWL) chart

2)   Penguin habitat (melting/freezing) and warmth

3)   Feeding (food chain)

4)   Family (genetics/traits that pass down)

5)   Life as a penguin (informative penguin video)

Together we also decided that by the end of our five weeks together, students should be able to answer the question “How do penguins live?” with adequate detail showing what they learned while incorporating science with the life of penguins. Along with that, we came up with a goal for our students and that was simply to explore and gain knowledge about the life of penguins in a scientific way.

Penguin Plunge was a blast, to say the least, and I’m positive all of our students would agree. Reflecting back the experience I decided to compare our execution to Anthony Lorsbach’s article The Learning Cycle as a Tool for Planning Science Instruction. Lorsbach discusses the importance of the five E’s, engage, exploration, explanation, extension, and evaluation. All five E’s together create a learning cycle that is effective in helping students learn. In most cases, you’ll start with engage. This is where you want to create interest and curiosity for the topic of discussion. Next is explore, where students are given the chance to work together with little to no instruction from the teacher allowing them to ask and answer their own questions. During explain, students should be encouraged to explain concepts/ideas in their own words using evidence and observations. Extend is where students apply concepts and skills learned in a new situation. Last, evaluation should happen throughout the learning experience. Simple observations of students’ skills and knowledge of the concept, asking questions, and having students evaluate their own learning are all ways to evaluate.

Although we did not know too much information about the five E’s during the time of Penguin Plunge, I would say that our group did include all five E’s without even realizing it. Below are the five E’s and what we did, as teachers, for each E while teaching science to our students.

Engage: To gain the interest of students we began the first day of Penguin Plunge creating a KWL chart after reading a short introductory story about penguins. Students were able to share with us what they already knew about penguins as well as any questions they had about penguins and wanted to know the answer to by the end of the club. This led to a lot of curiosity from most of the students because they wanted to know the answer to these questions and couldn’t wait to start exploring to find them. My favorite question was, do penguins have ears?

Explore: When discussing a penguin’s habitat, I tied in the concept of ice and how it melts and freezes. Each student was given an ice cube to make observations on before and after leaving it outside for ten minutes. After giving students their ice cubes, I then let them create questions, observations, thoughts, etc. on their own. This created some exciting discussions between students in which I just stood back and listened to it all happen. The students really enjoyed being able to be their own teacher and investigate for answers by themselves.

Explain: At the end of each club’s meeting, we sat down as a group and filled out the L (what I learned) part of the KWL chart. Students had the opportunity to explain what they had learned that day in their own words. We also encouraged them to go into detail with evidence and/or observations by asking them how or why they knew what they were explaining.

Extension: Students’ learning experience about penguins was extended during our “Life as a Penguin” party on the last day of club where we put together everything we had discussed and learned. Students had to chance to create a book with facts about penguins, make a penguin craft based off what they learned about what penguins look like/characteristics they have, and to eat like a penguin while applying that back to where penguins are in the food chain and relating that to where humans fall on the chain as well.

Evaluation: Observations and questioning took place throughout every time we met as a club. Every teacher in our group has the skill to informally evaluate students’ success through simple open-ended questions and listening for reasoning in their responses.

The journey of Penguin Plunge was definitely one to remember; especially because it was the first time that many of us teachers used the five E’s and saw, first hand, the benefits and outcomes of doing so. Considering we were unaware that we were even including all five E’s, we did a wonderful job. Of course, there is always room for improvement and I am confident that we will all use this experience as an opportunity to take what we learned and create a bigger and better learning experience for our students in the future.

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