Bringing Conservation Science to Life at Westtown School:
Willistown Conservation Trust Bird Initiatives Take Wing with New Curriculum
Can we inspire high school students to care deeply about land conservation while simultaneously teaching them data analysis, geography, and science lessons? Yes.
And birds are the powerful hook.
The Trust’s leadership in bird conservation has already attracted local involvement of all ages and vastly enriched our knowledge about saving birds, many of which are in serious decline. But now the Trust has become a launchpad for potentially engaging students across the country in understanding the conservation messages embedded in bird study.
Thanks to a recent grant to the Trust from the R. James Macaleer Foundation, students at Westtown School will study multiple topics through the exciting lens of the Motus network this fall. Motus is a research network that tracks birds’ movement, and the technology-based nature of the system creates a dynamic platform upon which to build conservation literacy in students. Caitlin Welsh, a Willistown Conservation Trust intern and University of Pennsylvania graduate student, created the new avian learning module that will be piloted at the Westtown School. The effort is Caitlin’s capstone project for her master’s degree in Environmental Studies.
Beginning with materials developed by Liza Barney at Bird Studies Canada for grades four through eight, Caitlin and Liza created a program of study suitable for American high school students in grades 9 through 12. The learning module focuses on bird migration ecology and conservation, and emphasizes research and technology used by research collaborators in the Motus network. The organization and progression of activities in the curriculum was inspired by Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds Without Borders program for students in grades 7-12.
A sampling of the units in the curriculum includes: an introduction to Motus; the perils of migrating bird populations; loss of land and habitat; tracking birds with Motus; calculating distances using Motus data sets; migration mapping and North American geography. Arts-based exercises are designed to promote conservation to other students. Flexibility is built in to the design, enabling teachers to tailor areas of study. Caitlin’s primary challenge was to elevate the learning module for older students and to align it with American educational standards. The interdisciplinary learning module will include data literacy practice, where students are required to translate visual information such as migration paths and patterns into written text and vice versa, fostering growth in key skill areas such as inference and deductive reasoning.
TJ Costa, Director of Sustainability at Westtown School, has helped to integrate both the learning module and the installation of a Motus receiving station at the school. The station will generate exciting data from birds migrating through the Westtown School campus and will allow the school community to have a direct impact on bird research by contributing to the Motus data collection.
Mariska Batavia, upper school science teacher at Westtown, is a key collaborator, enthusiastically offering the new module to students seeking independent study projects. Following this pilot, Caitlin will refine the curriculum using Mariska’s feedback. In the future, teacher workshops will be hosted at the Trust’s new Rushton Conservation Center to train teachers from other schools to use the new learning module.