and artists, depicting the details on plant leaves, woody stems, and bark. The second graders created elaborate scrapbooks of pressed plants, and a group of four boys assembled a pinned insect collection. In the spring, the students discovered tadpoles in the pools that had formed by the marsh, and they watched, fascinated, as the tadpoles became frogs.
Several children who didn’t speak English emerged as keen observers and were highly valued for their artistic contributions. Others were interested in annotating drawings and making sure that all captions and commentary were done in both English and Spanish. Ms. Rivera, who spoke both languages, was helpful in this as well.
Gradually, interest groups emerged. One group was interested primarily in trees, estimating their age by measuring their circumference and height. In order to overcome the challenge of measuring the heights of tall trees, Mr. Walker built on the children’s understanding of the mathematics of triangles. He showed them how to make a simple altimeter, which, along with the Pythagorean theory, the children used to measure the heights of all of the trees in the yard. This gave the tree group an opportunity to discuss variability of measures and sources of measurement error, which they shared with their classmates.
Another group was primarily interested in weeds, which turned out to be much harder to categorize than trees and shrubs. After weeks of debate and discussion, the group realized that the term “weed” could be used to describe any unwanted plant. The students came up with a saying that they displayed on a wall banner in both classrooms: “One person’s weed may be another person’s flower and another person’s dinner.” This helped the students realize that how one views the world influences the way one describes it and to press themselves to clarify their assumptions and work to strive for common language and meaning in their scientific work.
Students’ interests in the project varied widely, and not all of them were easily drawn into the course. Ms. Rivera and Mr. Walker worked hard to make the children aware of different aspects of the investigation in order to help them identify their own interests in the unit. Some were interested in such areas of study as sustainability, collecting and studying insects (both alive and dead). Some were interested in developing and using such tools as Excel databases and other software packages to aid in drawing. The students who collected and studied the insects pursued their interest over time and eventually focused on investigating insect movement. They focused primarily on the area by the stream, as it seemed less affected by people than other areas of the yard and had more insects. The students compared the locomotion of insects in water with their locomotion on different ground surfaces, such as grass, mud, and pavement.
The students in the insect group at first wanted to classify insects by salient attributes like color or size.