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Lessons from ClimeTime Summer Institute: Students Decide to Send Springer the Orca Whale Home

Young researchers, in Dwight Ashley's Kent School District 3rd grade classroom, recently studied the plight of a young Orca whale named Springer who was separated from her pod in January of 2002. Mrs. Dwight's students spent four weeks learning all they could about Orca whales including their social nature, the way they live in their environment and even the way scientists study Orca health. Students learned that Orcas are social animals who live in pods. They learned how Orcas communicate, what they eat and even how special dogs help scientists determine the health of a whale by sniffing for whale scat! (Students loved that!)

This unit, designed to engage students in a central phenomenon or question, was developed by the Ambitious Science Teaching (AST) group at the University of Washington. Supporting student learning in this unit is challenging since the students don't learn the answer to their question until the very end and yet, Mrs. Dwight used strategies she learned at an August 2019 ClimeTime Summer Institute to keep her students engaged throughout! 

One strategy Mrs. Dwight learned at the Institute was to start her unit with an anchoring phenomenon, in this case, the plight of Springer the whale. During this "anchoring the phenomenon" routine, students are introduced to the question, "What do baby Orcas need to survive and grow to have babies of their own some day?" Students were then asked to share what they already knew or think they knew through text and drawings using model templates like the one below.

Orca drawing board

These young scientists then participated in a number of activities, each of which added some understanding about the anchoring question. At the Institute, Mrs. Dwight learned how to help her young scientists track their thinking, over time, with a summary table. During the unit, Mrs. Dwight recorded the evidence students identified from each activity that would help them understand what Springer needed to survive and thrive, and to make the decision about returning her to her family. Making student thinking visible to teachers and students is a hallmark of Ambitious Science Teaching and critical to helping students develop their understanding of important science ideas.

So, did the students decide to send Springer home?  After learning that her pod was in Canada, that she needed her family to survive and that she was healthy, the students determined that she should be returned to her pod. Springer is still with the Northern Resident Community of Orcas.  She is believed to be the first Orca to be rescued, rehabilitated and returned to the wild. In 2017, she was spotted with her second calf. She survived and thrived as the students knew she would. 

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