Upper Arlington News

Learning in action

Students build nesting tower for chimney swifts

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Greensview Elementary School fifth-graders are helping protect an endangered species by building a chimney swift tower in Sunny 95 Park.

Teacher Star Simpson said the project began as a science unit about endangered and invasive birds in Ohio.

"The state's new science standards require that students learn about a species and then do something with the information," she said.

With the help of Jeanne Beaver, integration coach for 21st-century skills, Simpson guided the students through a "systems thinking activity" where they looked at the current human impact and consequences on birds in Ohio.

"That led to a conversation about the chimney swifts in my chimney," she said. "This led to questions, which we researched, and they decided that we could try and do something to help provide shelter for these birds."

Chimney swifts are a nationally endangered bird, mostly due to lack of habitat, since they nest in chimneys or smokestacks. Most new chimneys are capped or made of metal, which is too slick for the birds to roost in, according to the North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project, at chimneyswifts.org. Building a chimney swift tower gives the birds a safe place to roost or nest, while they consume thousands of flying insects per day.

Beaver said the Upper Arlington students conducted a scientific investigation, using mathematics tools and techniques to gather data and information on the chimney swift dilemma.

Specifically, she said, the unit focused interconnections within ecosystems.

"She (Simpson) designed the unit around the following ideas: animals get their energy by eating plants and other animals that eat plants; animals are consumers and many form predator-prey relationships and organisms have symbiotic relationships in which individuals of one species are dependent upon individuals of another species for survival," Beaver said.

Simpson said the students used Google Sketch-up to design chimney swift towers, wrote bid sheets and proposals and designed prototypes of the towers.

The class worked with the Upper Arlington Parks and Recreation Department to find space for the tower in Sunny 95 Park and received a grant of $1,450 from the Upper Arlington Education Foundation.

"The cost rose over the course of construction, due to unexpected expenses and the plans and supply list we were able to convince the Minneapolis Parks Department to share were incomplete," Simpson said.

She said Upper Arlington Service Learning also provided $700 for the project.

Simpson brought the plans to Craig and Rich Conie of Conie Construction -- Rich has a son in Simpson's class.

"The plans were OK, but not nearly detailed enough," she said. "Once we built the central tower, which weighed close to 800 pounds, we realized we could not lift it without machinery. He (Craig Conie) brought equipment and four employees over on a Friday and set it up and secured it with black iron brackets that he had one of his men make specially for us."

Beaver said preparing students for the 21st century emphasizes that they need to be "systems thinkers."

"We design units that enable students to examine various systems and identify the gaps that represent that place between the way things are and the way things could or should be, then analyze what action can be taken to fill the gap," she said. "We want our students to know that they can be the ones who take the action."

She said the declining habitat of the chimney swift "was the gap."

"Star's students really enjoyed the hands-on learning," Beaver said. "It's one thing for them to read about chimney swift towers and entirely another for them to design a prototype of a tower and build it with materials they had sourced -- cardboard and glue.

"I observed a high level of engagement," she said. "There was also an enormous sense of pride when the real tower was erected in Sunny 95 Park. Students knew that they had been a part of the solution to the declining habitat of chimney swifts."

Simpson said the project was valuable to her students on many levels.

"Listening to them talk about what a swift needed was fascinating," she said. "One group compared the birds flying into a chimney to a diver on a high-dive and how they needed deeper water for a safe landing. That's great thinking.

"The tower is a legacy that these fifth-graders are leaving their community," she said. "They have effected a positive change for a species of birds that is rapidly losing places to live."

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