The winner of the 2016 Lesson Plan Contest, sponsored by Duke Farms and Conserve Wildlife Foundation is Lauren Kurzius, an eighth-grade teacher at the Alexander Batcho Intermediate School in Manville, N.J. In a recent e-mail interview, and Lauren explained all -- from how she came up with the lesson plan to the most important thing it teaches.
What grades and courses do you teach?
I teach 8th grade life science, Pre-veterinary Medicine (online though The Virtual High School, Junior/Senior level course).
How long have you been a teacher?
I have been teaching for 14 years.
Always been your goal?
When I started college, I wanted to be a doctor. I was pre-med for a while. I loved anatomy and physiology. But then I took a comparative anatomy course and just loved working with all different types of life. Not just human life. I thought, I can do this. I can teach this. This is cool. All forms of life are inspiring for different reasons.
Where are you from, and where did you go to school?
I am from Staten Island. I went to the University of Scranton, where I earned a BS Biology, MS Secondary Education/Biology. I moved to New Jersey in 2005 and Ive been here ever since!
How long have your students watched the Eagle Cam?
About 3 years. Each year, it gets a little more intense. As I learn more about eagles (and any raptor) I pass it on to the students. Each year we do more.
How did you hear about it?
I teach in Manville, which is about two miles away from Duke Farms. About five years ago I spotted an eagle. I was shocked.
Having grown up in NYC, we don't see eagles! I started researching and wow, blown away. They have been here for years and I didn't know.
When did you realize you could use it as a learning tool?
Immediately. If I thought this was amazing. I knew my students would too. We set up a TV in the back of my classroom and we watch all different nests. We watch year round starting with the Florida nests in the fall. The raptors are kind of like out class mascot. Theyre always with us. In middle school, you have to hook the kids. I started showing them pictures of the little eaglets in the nest. That was it. Hooked. Weve expanded to horned owl nests, osprey nests in the summer. This is part of New Jersey and New Jersey history and being from New York, I needed to learn it as well. The kids should know what lives in their own backyard.
How did you come up with Whodunit lesson plan?
I love forensic science. It's a form of puzzle solving and I love that types of science. Inquiry, solving problems, mysteries. I just combined what I like.
How long did it take?
I had the initial idea about a year ago but couldnt really figure out how I wanted to present it. I just let it sit, rolling around in my brain until it hit me. This is how I can do this. I would scribble things down.
Once I had the concept down and a strong idea about what I wanted to do, it took about a week or so to write it. It still needs a bit a tweaking. I'm running the lesson in my class soon. That will help perfect it.
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."
I thought the PowerPoints were wonderful, including the photos. It makes your lesson plan so useful to other teachers.
Was that always part of the plan?
Yes. I knew that it would be too hard to explain if it was just a plan. It needed visuals. I am a visual learner. Im a hands on learner. I need to see things so I thought a lot of other science teachers are probably the same way. This is the best way to present it so its not confusing.
How did you get so adept at all this technological stuff?
My father has a PhD in computer science, my husband has a degree is comp sci as well. I grew up with it. It's in the blood.
A lot of the tech stuff isnt necessarily complicated. It's having the willingness to go at it, try new things and not be afraid that it wont work that stops a lot of people. I showed the new lesson plan to a few of my honors students to test it out. They seemed to really like it. It does take longer then I initially thought but thats ok. One extra day wont hurt anyone.
Why do the students like the eaglets?
They are just so cute! I think watching anything grow is amazing. They also love the drama of it. Watching the eagles fledge is very exciting. Is it going to be today? Tomorrow. What if they fall? What if it snows? Students connect to the eaglets on an emotional level. When they are invested emotionally, they want to learn more. They care more.
Do students respond differently by age?
All I know is that my 3.5 year old only likes the eagles if they are flying or eating. She has no patience for them sitting on the nest.
What is the most important lesson the eagles teach?
That life is precious. That the cycle of life is as different amongst species as it is the same. That survival comes in all different forms and this is just one of them.
How do you find the time to use the eagle curriculum?
I squeeze it in where I can. Because we have the monitor going all day long for months when an event is happening, we stop and focus on the cam. Otherwise, we carry on with our curriculum and if I can find a way to relate, we do. There's always time for eagles!
Any difficult moment watching the cam? How did you handle it?
Oh, boy. So many. The time the Florida eagles brought back 2 wild boar hooves was pretty gruesome and my students couldn't handle the eagles ripping apart a turtle in the Duke nest. But the best teachable moment happened this year when e8, an eaglet in the Florida nest, got its tiny foot snared by a fishing line when it was 2 weeks old. The CROW clinic had to rescue it and it was rehabilitated and then returned to the nest. That opened up a ton of discussion about when it's appropriate to interfere with wildlife, with nature. We followed the story for weeks to follow because we werent sure if that baby was going to survive after being returned. It wasnt eating well for a few days. Then, when e8 went missing, my students were horrified. When viewing wildlife cams, it's hard to not feel like they are part of your family. You're in their world every day. The news that e8 was found and brought to CROW happened on a Friday. I was done with classes for the day. I happened to check their Facebook page and there it was; pictures of e8 at the rehabilitation center. I visited as many classrooms as I could to tell the students. Other teachers thought I was nuts. But the kids cheered, a few were very emotional, and some cried tears of joy. There was a sense of relief. One of our own was missing and now has a chance. As biologists, we are trained not to apply/associate human emotion with wildlife but wow, it's hard not to.
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.