For Amanda Breimer, teaching science to grade 6 students is packed with opportunities to engage with the broader community, creatively address environmental concerns, and share knowledge with an authentic audience. Within the last year and a half, the Calvin Christian School (CCS) teacher has been intentional about seeing what a project based learning (PBL) approach to education has to offer, particularly within the context of her science class.
Back in December 2014, Breimer’s grade 6 class learned about renewable energy sources by visiting The Sustainable House in Vaughan (a house run completely on renewable energy, made primarily out of recycled items). The trip was meant to help students consider a question posed by the CCS board: How can we make renewable energy sources at CCS? They came back eager to share what they had learned through presentations about wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy sources.
In a written reflection about the experience, grade 6 student Oyin Aderibigbe put it this way:
“PBL taught us to work as a team, cooperate and get things done.”
Team work and cooperation are important ingredients in this year’s PBL exploration too, but the focus is a little different. Students in Breimer’s class are learning all about invasive species—their impact on the environment, and the different invasive species present in Hamilton.
“Today, we are seeing more and more plants and animals that are being affected by invasive species here in Hamilton,” explained Breimer. “Even on our school property many of our ash trees have been removed due to the emerald ash borer.”
In October, all three grade six classes at CCS took a trip to Dundas Valley, where they collected water samples with an aquatic ecologist who specialized in small, bottom-dwelling invasive fish called the Round Goby.
“It amazed the students how many living things actually lived in a small river and what were identifiers to a healthy environment,” explained Breimer. Prior to the trip, the class had been studying how living things are classified into different kingdom groups. Students had also been looking at the impact of invasive species on native and non-native species in their own communities.
Breimer wanted students to gain a better understanding of the chain reactions that occur when invasive species don’t have predators—and she wanted them to do it in a way that would be dynamic and relevant for them.
“So when thinking of how we could bring this lesson home and also bring authentic learning, I knew it would be great to get the Hamilton Conservation Area on board” she said. “After asking how grade 6 students could help them with informing others about invasive species here in Hamilton and surrounding communities, our project was formed.”
Since their trip to Dundas Valley, grade 6 classes have been tasked with the job of creating kid-friendly postcards about various kinds of invasive species in the area. The postcards explain how to identify where the species came from, and how to interact with them. They will be placed at different conservation areas across the city, so that other children can learn too.
“The Hamilton Conservation Authority also has us applying for grants to turn these postcards into actual signs in different areas of Hamilton,” said Breimer. “I’m excited to see where this project takes us!”
Briemer’s enthusiasm is matched by her students.
“Learning about invasive species is so cool!” said Carly, a student in Breimer’s class. “It is very fun learning about all different types of invasive species and what we can do as grade 6 students to help get rid of them.”
“Our project on invasive species is really awesome” echoed Joel, another grade 6 student. “I think it’s important that we send out awareness to kids about invasive species. I think it’s fun because we get to use computers a lot. We are making postcards with a really cool template about our invasive species.”
A highlight for Breimer has been watching students become excited and motivated to learn.”Right away they feel empowered with this project,” she said. “I think it is truly part of bringing your projects out of your classroom and into your community.”
That’s not to say that the assignment has always been a breeze for the teachers involved.
“There have definitely been bridges to cross” said Breimer. “Working with two other grade 6 teachers, we meet regularly to ensure we are all on the same page and that there are some similarities in our work. Having almost 60 students’ ideas and having to come to one template idea for the postcards can sure take a while.”
So far those meetings have been worth the work. The project has been a success on a number of levels—giving students the chance to contribute to an important environmental conversation happening in their own backyards. According to Breimer, various aspects of the unit have encouraged student to “care for God’s creation” by sharing what they learn with people within and beyond their school.
“Yes we are to learn about it,” she reflected, “but we are also called to act. Creating this lesson to become interactive is not only teaching the students but hopefully informing others.”
Throughout their studies, students have also been able to probe the topic of invasive species from a Christian perspective.
“In our current science unit we have been studying how biodiversity in creation is God’s marvelous gift to all His creatures, especially to God’s people, who can appreciate and glorify God for it. We are also given the responsibility to care for and nurture God’s creation. Many discussions in class come from this world-view. Students see this as a way they can act on this role God has given us.”