The caper was fishy from the get-go. After all, it involved a koi pond in Hillsborough, N.J., and it existed only on computer. The crime? Someone was swiping residents from Mr. Richardson's pond. The detectives assigned to the finny felony: 17 very smart students. Could they use their Sherlockian skills of deduction to solve this murky mystery? Elementary? Not by a long shot.
These were eighth-graders from the Alexander Batcho Intermediate School in Manville, N.J. -- just a few flaps of a Bald Eagle's wings across Route 206 from Duke Farms -- and they were ready to get to work.
Welcome to what some call the Case of the Filched Fish -- the winning entry in this year's Lesson Plan Contest sponsored by Duke Farms and Conserve Wildlife Foundation. The lesson plan was the brainchild of eighth-grade science teacher Lauren Kurzius, who has been a teacher for 14 years. Why Lauren was chosen as the winner isn't much of a mystery. Among a host of creative entries in a very talented field, Lauren's stood out for its imaginative use of several wildlife cams and the way they can be used to involve students in the natural world around them. Earlier this month, Lauren and some of her honors students in the computer lab gave the lesson plan a test-drive. The goal of the three 45-minute sessions was not only for the students to solve the fish mystery, but also to provide feedback -- ferreting out misspelled words in the lesson plan, or finding things that didn't quite work. The students worked in pairs or trios as they delved into the mystery, clue by clue, using a PowerPoint that Lauren provided. (Lauren's winning entry also included a PowerPoint for teachers, so it can be used anywhere and adapted to other grade levels.)
You can download an overview of Lauren's lesson plan as well as the PowerPoint for students and the PowerPoint for teachers here. Just scroll down to "Classroom Activities and Lessons."
The whodunit included watching several wildlife cams for at least 10 minutes a day for several days to learn more about the "suspects," which included Osprey, Great Horned Owl, Bald Eagle and Red-tailed Hawk. By observing the birds, students could narrow the number of suspects. Other clues involve evidence found at the scene, including tracks, feathers and a sound recording of the perpetrator. The 45 minutes flew by. Not only was the mystery interactive, but so was the tweaking of the lesson plan. Sure enough, as the students delved into the mystery, a glitch or two cropped up. Students caught a couple of typos, and the audio clue did work with certain software. This was clearly a learning team, with Lauren as leader and participant. The class was clearly enjoying watching all the wildlife cams, studying what prey was being brought into each nest, and seeing the raptors in action. By the end of the period, the mystery had not been solved, but there were two more sessions to go. For Kurzius' team of sleuths the game was afoot. Lauren was confident that her detectives were already on the right track: "Ultimately, the lesson plan is not about getting the right answer," she said. "It's about how hard they work at problem-solving."
Tomorrow: An interview with Lauren Kurzius.
Got a question or suggestion? E-mail Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Wright writes The Bird Watcher columnist for The Record. He is the author of four coffee-table books about wild places, and a deputy marsh warden of the Celery Farm Natural Area in Allendale, N.J.