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"It felt like real science!" How Operation Magpie enriched my classroom.

This paper describes what happened in four teachers' classrooms as a result of participating in Operation Magpie, a Citizen Science project. The range of strategies used to engage their students in observing magpies in the schoolyard and in nearby parks is the focus of the teachers' stories. 'Magic spots', data collection, class blogs, binocular use, creative writing and orienteering walks to monitor magpie family groups are all part of the story.


This research began with a team of Science educators, urban ecologists and ABC Local Radio working collaboratively on a statewide Citizen Science project. The aim of the research was to see if Citizen Science could be an appropriate vehicle to encourage K-7 teachers to teach science.

Citizen Science is rapidly developing as a research methodology (Bonney, 2007; Lepczyk et al, 2009; Stodden, 2010) where professional researchers engage the public to collect data within a cooperative framework of research and education (Cooper et at, 2007; Phillips, 2007). In short, this means involving the wider community in scientific research. Importantly, through this involvement, the community also benefits through science education, learning simultaneously about the taxon or phenomenon under investigation, and about the scientific process (Bonney et at, 2009; Roetman & Daniels, 2009). Bonney and his colleagues (2009) reported on the benefits of Citizen Science projects in terms of informal science education. Some projects they reported on Included schools in their education programs. However, while the education programs of numerous Citizen Science programs are utilised by schools, and many have noted the potential for Citizen Science to improve science education in schools (e.g. Ellenbogen, 2007), there is limited reporting on the impact of this uptake on teachers or students.

Since 2007, three Citizen Science projects have been conducted across the South Australian community and schools by the University of South Australia and ABC Local Radio: Operation Bluetongue (2007), Operation Possum (2008) and Operation Magpie (2009). This paper reports on the 2009 Citizen Science Project which focused on collecting data about magpies.

Early in 2009, prior to the official launch of Operation Magpie, approximately seventy-five teachers attended interactive workshops where they were introduced to the idea of Citizen Science and provided with some resource-rich material and online support about magpies (Barbara Hardy Centre, 2010). Subsequently, twelve teachers elected to join a focus group with the researchers with the intention of supporting each other in planning and conducting a unit of work on magpies. Due to the geographically dispersed location of these teachers, three separate focus groups were formed. Each group met three times over two terms to share their ideas and experiences of science planning, student learning, resources, and the links they made between science and other learning areas. At the completion of the final focus group, the teachers were provided with time to write up their stories of classroom practice and their students' engagement with the magpie theme. It is these stories which are the essence of this report.

The paper starts by exploring the background literature on connecting with nature, primary school science and Citizen Science. A short description of the project is followed by the teacher stories. A summary of key themes that emerged from these successful units of work concludes the paper.


The original aim of the research was to evaluate the involvement of teachers in Citizen Science projects and to explore whether this approach to teaching and learning can engage primary school learners in meaningful science and help them to develop connectivity to their natural world. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that many children, particularly those living in urban environments, do not connect strongly, if at all, with their natural environment. Louv (2008) suggests that this 'alienation from nature' is a highly detrimental condition that he terms 'nature-deficit disorder'. Furthermore, if Citizen Science was shown to be manageable for participating teachers, then perhaps other teachers would be encouraged to use this approach, and to feel more confident in teaching science.

In 2001, Goodrum, Hackling and Rennie reported that the teaching of Science in primary school is sporadic and rarely valued by teachers. However, in the past five years there has been a strong national and state initiative to improve the status of Science in primary schools through the introduction of Primary Connections (Hackling, Peers & Prain, 2007). Primary Connections Is a program aimed to build teacher competence in teaching both Science and literacy and is the vehicle being used to reinvigorate the quantity and quality of Science in primary classrooms within Australian Schools. Contemporary primary science pedagogy reflects the importance of planning sequential learning experiences using a socially constructivist view of teaching and learning (Australian Academy of Science, 2010; Skamp, 2008). The use of teaching and learning models such as the 5Es or Interactive Teaching Sequence, provides primary teachers with a framework for constructing sequential lessons that build on students' prior knowledge (Australian Academy of Science, 2010; Faire & Cosgrove, 1993). The learning experiences and background knowledge generated for Operation Magpie that are available for teachers to access on the Barbara Hardy Centre website, uses such a coherent approach to planning.

Many science education researchers and teachers argue that students need to be scientifically literate, where each student is 'familiar with the natural world and recognizes both its diversity and unity' (Hodson, 2003, p. 645). The Australian National Science Curriculum (ACARA, 2010) identifies three key strands considered vital to scientific literacy among K-12 students: Science for Understanding; Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills. Each of these strands is embedded In Operation Magpie. The focus for the 'Science for Understanding' strand is concepts such as physical characteristics of magpies, family groupings and habitats. Through Operation Magpie, students become aware of the shared environment of humans and magpies, and the need for humans to make informed, ethical, evidence-based decisions relating to the environment. Thus, 'Science as a Human Endeavour' is evident in this project. And perhaps most strongly, Operation Magpie highlights scientific inquiry skills, which includes posing questions about magpies, planning and conducting investigations, collecting and analysing evidence and communicating findings.

Our Citizen Science projects, with their focus on elements of the local natural environment and 'nature science', have the potential to connect science learning to student interests, to their everyday lives as well as meeting the initial advice for the National Science Curriculum which states, 'Science is a way of answering questions about the natural world' (National Curriculum Board, 2009, p. 1). Through engagement with iconic native animal species, students can develop scientific literacy and a love for the natural environment. The Citizen Science data is submitted on-line and collated in order to provide new information about animal behaviour and how people interact with wildlife; in this case the location and behaviour of Australian magpies in South Australia.


The thirteen teachers who attended the focus groups commented on how beneficial it was to spend time with interested colleagues to share their teaching experiences. They reported that they felt valued and left the meetings with renewed enthusiasm, new ideas and resources to implement in the classroom. To capture this momentum, the teachers were asked to document their stories of involving their students in Operation Magpie and to reflect critically on the process. The following stories from four of these teachers are representative of the practical ways that the focus group teachers engaged their students in the natural world through Science. Wherever possible, it is their writing that tells the story.

Cathy's story focuses on connecting students to the environment through participating in a sensory trail that was set up in an area of land that the school was responsible for rejuvenating.

Heather's story describes how her class documented their investigations about magpies through a blog.

Peter's story focuses on data collection taken during science walks that were well documented on street directory maps.

Vicki's story focuses on 'magic spots' for observing the physical characteristics and behaviour of magpies.


Cathy is a Year 5 teacher at a Catholic boys' school in an eastern suburb of Adelaide. She started teaching in South Africa where her enthusiasm for environmental science originated. Her story focuses on developing environmental awareness in her students via a sensory experience and research based learning. Cathy's story is structured around three key themes: a unit of work, science and resource based learning, and a focus on literacy. The story concludes with one student's poem.

The school at which Cathy teaches is near Morialta Conservation Park. A school-based environmental educationalist oversees the management of 'Our Patch', a section of land in the conservation park where the students are encouraged to help weed out introduced, exotic plants such as gorse and broom and to then plant and maintain indigenous species of plants. It was 5B's turn to go to the patch for five consecutive Fridays during Term Four and help with the maintenance of Our Patch. Operation Magpie was used as a launching pad for 5B's integrated unit of work on environmental awareness and sustainability.

Cathy's Story
  The boys were given a copy of the Operation Magpie observation sheets
  and were requested to complete two observations for the Operation
  Magpie research project during their third term holidays. If was a
  good opportunity to strengthen communication bonds at home, so the
  boys were encouraged to get family and friends involved in this
  project. They could register their findings on the official
  ABC/University website if they wanted to, but this was optional.

Scientific Drawing
  During the first week of Term Four, on return from their school
  holidays, the boys handed in their observation sheets and we
  discussed what we had learnt about magpies and their behaviour. The
  boys were then asked to draw a magpie. They had a lot of trouble
  getting the magpie markings right. We then discussed the Habit of
  Mind, 'Using oil our senses to gather information' and how we need to
  use ALL our senses to learn about the world around us. We discussed
  how sometimes we don't really LOOK at the things around us - that is,
  how we see things, but don't really fake much notice of them.

  The boys were then asked to go home and observe magpies again for a
  few days - but this time to really LOOK carefully - using all their
  senses to try to discover what a magpie looks and sounds like. They
  were then asked to draw a magpie again at the end of the week. In
  some cases, more detail was included in these 'after' drawings.

Science and Resource Based Learning
  Our environ menial educationalist provided us with a Morialta species
  list and each student picked a bird or animal from this list to
  research. A project description sheet outlining the expectations of
  the project was given to each student and discussed at length. They
  had to include information such as Description, Habitat, Breeding,
  where found in Australia, and other interesting information. The boys
  worked on this during their Resource Based Learning sessions and
  spare (early finishers) time. They were given three weeks to complete
  their projects.


The Literacy Aspect: Imagery Web and Snapshot of a Moment in Time
  One Friday at lunchtime we left early for Our Patch and went on a
  Sensory Experience Walk in the Morialta Conservation Park.

  It worked tike this: The environmental educator went ahead on the
  track with the whole class of boys and dropped each one off at a
  quiet spot where they couldn't see any of their class motes (about 50
  -75m apart). They were to remain silent during the entire exercise
  and use ALL their senses to take in their surroundings. When dropped
  off at their specific spot, they were to sit alone and reflect on
  their surroundings, making notes of everything they could hear, see,
  smell, taste or touch. I waited behind for five minutes then started
  walking, picking up each boy along the track. There was to be no
  talking until we got to the end of the track. During our return trip
  from Our Patch, the boys were asked to stay quiet and to look around
  them to see if they could find 'something old, something new,
  something borrowed and something blue'.

  Discussions were held to explore the boys' findings and their
  interpretations of the 'treasure hunt'. Some ideas, such as 'the land
  is borrowed', 'the rocks are old', 'the flowers are new' and 'the sky
  is blue', were offered and discussed.

  On our return to school, the boys drew a 'Morialta sensory experience
  imagery web' where they charted all the sensory experiences they had
  while in solitude on our sensory walk. They were given free choice as
  to how they could map and illustrate their sensory webs. Some ideas
  were brainstormed before they started on these.

  They then used this to write a descriptive 'snapshot' of their
  solitary experience in Morialta Conservation Park. To assist the
  boys, Colin Thiele's novel Magpie Island was used as an example of
  good descriptive writing and the use of adjectives with nouns was
  discussed. Lots of examples were explored before the boys started
  their first drafts.

  After completing their Sensory Webs, the boys then completed o
  snapshot of their sensory experience - 'A Reflection in Solitude'.
  They were reminded to write in the present tense and to keep their
  tenses consistent. As on example:

I am sitting on a warm and dusty rock,
absolutely isolated from all my friends.

There are small birds calling, black and white,
music composing magpies singing and bees
buzzing as I get scared of being stung and
nobody is there to help.

So far I've seen colourful, noisy cockatoos
flying, grey, furry, chubby Koalas climbing, the
sun shining like a spotlight on my face blinding
my eyes and bees looking around for something
to sting.

Little annoying ants are biting me as I get really
annoyed with them. I hear my teacher and
classmates approaching and feel relieved that
they are saving me.



Reflections on Cathy's story

What seems evident in this story is the impact that the series of learning experiences had on the students' learning. By taking a holistic approach and building on children's understanding through different ways of knowing, they were able to write poetry that was informative and clearly illustrated a connection to the natural world.


Heather is a passionate early years' educator with a focus on experiential learning. She teaches Year 1 at a primary school to the northeast of Adelaide. Becoming involved in the Citizen Science project provided her with an opportunity to develop new IT skills. For example, Heather explored the use of a blog as a collaboratively written journal with her students. The blog samples below provide an excellent record of the journey. The variety of learning experiences and the science learning are clearly evident. Thus, the classroom blog recorded their Operation Magpie journey; the following excerpts are representative of the discussions that ensued from their learning experiences.

Heather's Story
  Initial discussion focused upon the meaning of Operation Magpie and
  its purpose. Therein children discussed what they already knew about
  magpies, then expressed their knowledge through pictures and
  subsequent discussions, which were initially adapted to design an
  observation checklist. Once children had been shown how to manipulate
  binoculars and cameras and complete a recording sheet, they were
  sufficiently ready to observe resident magpies. Initially this was
  intended as a weekly event, but as interest grew, birds featured
  regularly and the entire journey was recorded via the classroom blog.
  As this was our first attempt at blogging, we studied and modelled
  ours on other classroom blogs. Internet safety was discussed; to
  ensureprivacy, we adopted personal initials to mask students'

  The project unfolded with a variety of literacy links: The Best Beaks
  from Booneroo Bay, the Aboriginal dreamtime story Magpie Crow and the
  Eagle and Pamela Allen's Waddle Giggle Gargle. Students researched
  birds with the assistance of a buddy class and later presented their
  findings. An authentic magpie nest proved an effective discussion
  initiator for poetry; the children were fascinated by its impressive
  size and structure. Design and Technology links were presented
  through the creation of protective head gear that deterred magpies
  from swooping, and various innovative models of bird feeders.

The following are entries in the class blog.

House 1A's Operation Magpie

Wednesday 19/08/09
  We began our search for magpies. JM decided the class should go to a
  place with trees. Other suggestions included the canteen, but that
  was not a good idea, as we realized it was closed due to renovations.
  We headed for the top oval. After a few minutes we saw three crows.
  They were busy hovering from the ground to the trees and making lots
  of noise. BK was disappointed we hadn't seen any magpies so, after
  5-10 minutes, we decided to move on. Just as we were about to move TO
  spotted a magpie on a neighboring house's television antenna. Then we
  saw one magpie in the school yard next to the fence - we followed it
  along the fence. We saw another magpie fly into the schoolyard and go
  behind the school Houses - TO noticed if had a lot of white on its
  back. When we came back to the classroom, some children thought they
  had seen two magpies, others thought they had seen eight.

Wednesday 26/08/09
  Today JM decided that it would be good to try grassy areas, so we
  headed off for the canteen. We stood near the grassy area and waited
  for some time. Soon we saw a bird that looked like a small magpie and
  watched it hop over the grass. TA took a photo of it. Later we saw
  two crows swooping across the grass. The weather was chilly and we
  wondered if that had anything to do with not seeing magpies. We
  continued to walk to the place we visited last week in the hope of
  spotting a magpie and along the way we saw several pigeons. Once
  again we waited and then we saw our first magpie, it was walking
  towards a pile of old bushes that had been cut down. We quietly
  followed if until it flew away. When we got back to the classroom, IR
  found the bird that looked like a baby magpie on the bird chart - it
  was called a magpie lark. We drew the birds we had seen and talked
  about what we had seen the magpie doing. After playtime, we were
  walking back to our classroom when we spotted a magpie just outside
  our classroom. We quietly stood and watched it walking around the
  garden bed pecking. Once we saw its wings fluff up and it looked like
  it was scratching itself. MA thought it was a girl magpie.

Wednesday 02/09/09
  Today House 1A went to a nearby park. We sat at the park for some
  time and then we saw three crows fly over. We saw other birds and ER
  said they were miners. ER found them later on the classroom bird
  chart. Much later someone from House 1A noticed a bird nest in the
  tree - some people saw two bird nests - KH took a photo of the nest.
  Whilst we were looking at the nest, a magpie flew overhead then sat
  on a nearby branch for some time, then it flew past us and onto the
  ground. It preened itself, then walked around scratching at the
  dirt. House 1A could not sit still so many students quietly followed
  the magpie and watched it pecking at the ground. Some thought the
  magpie was looking for worms. Somebody thought they saw the magpie
  pick up the worms.

  Emu eggs. JA and MA brought in two emu eggs which had been blown.
  They were a beautiful blue colour.

Tuesday 15/09/09
  CA brought in pictures of a dove that is building a nest in her back
  yard. The dove is a bird. CA said that the daddy bird stays close to
  the mummy bird and he collects sticks and tucks them in the nest.

Thursday 17/09/09
  JD found feathers of a magpie in her front garden. Her mum told her
  that a cat ate the magpie.

Friday 18/09/09
  House 1A walked to the top oval for fitness class and found a group
  of magpies on the oval. There were six altogether. Some were pecking
  at the grass, another pecked the dirt. Then they perched on the
  chimney and light posts. We wondered where they lived. We thought
  they might live together.

Wednesday 23/09/09
  The class decided to go back to the parklands near the school. As we
  headed out of the front gate to cross the road we saw a magpie on the
  other side of the road. It was walking around a tree. We tried to
  creep up to it to see how close we could get, but someone made a
  noise and it flew off. As we walked to the park, we saw lots of
  miners in the native bushes. IR spotted what looked like a nest on
  the ground. We weren't sure if it had been a nest, but it looked very
  much like it. As we walked closer to the park we spotted the nest in
  the tree that we had seen the previous time, some children thought it
  had gotten smialler. As we were watching the nest we noticed two
  magpies in the front yard of a neighbouring house. We watched them
  for a while and they flew off onto a roof. Whilst we were watching
  the magpies, we also saw two green parrots. They stayed in the tree
  for some time and then flew off.

  TH brought a nest she had made. The nest was a small basket filled
  with leaves and with two hard-boiled eggs spotted with black texta
  marks. TH had drawn a magpie, then cut it out of cardboard and put it
  in the nest.

Thursday 24/09/09
  TA brought photos that showed a honey eater hatching from its egg.
  The honey eater's nest was found at her Grandma's house.

  House 1A made bird feeders and put in wild bird seed. The bird
  feeders were hung in different places. When we came back to collect
  them, many of the seeds were gone.

Monday 12/10/09
  TA brought the honey eater's nest in. It was very tiny compared to
  the magpies' big nest.

Wednesday 14/10/09
  CA brought in a picture of the doves' nest. The mummy bird had sat on
  two eggs for a long time; one egg hatched and one didn't. The mummy
  bird has flown away with the baby bird and has not been seen near the
  nest. Why do you think only one egg hatched? CSch thinks the bird did
  not hatch because it died in its egg.

Tuesday 03/11/09
  MI and CSch saw the mother and baby magpie outside our classroom.
  Another bird came into the same area. The mother bird came closer to
  attack. it. The other bird swooped. The mother bird pecked at the
  other bird.

Reflections on Heather's story

Using the blog to collaboratively report the daily events about magpies worked at several levels. It provided a vehicle to instigate the use of a new technology. It modelled the report writing genre which provided rich examples of children thinking and working scientifically. It allowed parents to read how the students were involved in science during class time. As Heather wrote in an email,
  The strategies used were the weekly focus on magpies which was
  recorded via the blog and the incidental things children did which
  was added to the blog.


This Year 1-2 class teacher has developed a strong science background through his lifelong interest in environmental science. Peter is a member of the Field Naturalist Society.

Students at Peter's north eastern suburbs school have had a strong science curriculum over the last decade. This has included studying urban bird species during playtimes and in class lessons. Teachers in the regional 'cluster' network met to discuss the possibility of becoming involved in Operation Magpie. As a result, Peter's class began to study birds four weeks before the end of Term Three. Joining the UniSA Citizen Science Network acted as a catalyst to specifically focus on Australian magpies.

There are four main parts to Peter's story: firstly a justification for including magpies in his science program, secondly a sequence of learning experiences undertaken, thirdly, a description of the data collected during the science walks and finally, a student's story about his own observations.

Peter's Story
  Australian Magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen) are South Australia's State
  Government emblem. Magpies are active during the daytime from mid
  winter (beginning of Term Three) to the middle of summer at the end
  of December, and are easily observed by students on school grounds,
  parks, near homes and in the environs to and from school. Magpies
  form long-term family groups that occupy a large suburban area. As a
  family group, they share behaviour and similarities to humans,
  protecting their young, grooming and having a territory.

Student learning experiences:

The students:

* Made informal, almost daily anecdotal observations on two distinct family groups of Australian magpies which do overlap on occasions, one family on the bottom oval and the other on our top oval. These family groups did overlap on occasions.

* Mode formal observations on magpies and other birds on a science walk to Dry Creek at Thomas Turner Reserve, which included parents making and discussing their own observations (more detail below).

* Recorded data and tally sheets about sites, numbers and the behaviour of Magpies.

* Studied resident miagpie-larks (Grallino cyanoleuca), pigeons, parrots and galahs, ravens and sacred ibises (Threskiornis aethiopica) visiting our school.

* Borrowed the Nature Education Centre's package of native 'urban' birds and urban exotic species.

* Brought feathers they collected and discussed possible bird species and where the feathers might be found on the bird's body.

* Told stories and brought abandoned nests from introduced blackbirds (Turdusmerula), new holland honeyeaters (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae), noisy miners living at or near their homes or the homes of relatives.

* Measured the size of nests and discussed the construction materials gathered by a particular species of bird.

* Took photos of a magpie being regularly fed by a class grandparent.

* Incorporated the Aboriginal Dream Story Magpie, Crow and Eagle belonging to the Adnyomathanha people of the upper Flinders Ranges.

* Used bird references to identify if birds mentioned in books were real, or imaginary, and if real where found in Australia and if they had features we could identify.

* Used several picture books and texts to discuss environmental issues, and bird needs including Rusty Loses his Loop, The Best Beak in Boonaroo Bay and Where's Stripey?


Data collection during walks
  The science walks were key to students developing an awareness of
  magpies in both the school and broader community. As a teacher, I
  often use Google Earth and street directory maps of our school and
  local suburb when talking to my students about locations or Health,
  Society and Environment and Maths concepts. I find many Year 1 and 2
  children, with a little teaching and explicit guiding, can recognise
  local map places and features. I marked arrows on street maps as part
  of my instruction during a walk or activity with students, helping
  them to record directions and data spots. Last year I spent several
  weeks teaching metres and kilometres with my class and these maps
  help to measure big distances and give students a 'real feel' for
  when we walk a kilometre or further. As a long-time junior primary
  teacher, I use Microsoft Word tallies and simple graphs to record
  observations or measurements to improve understanding when
  integrating topics into curriculum areas. It was my decision to
  modify the official Operation Magpie data form to suit a junior
  primary audience as well as allow our tally sheets to evolve, based
  on our observations and discussions over the Initial weeks of
  studying magpies. As there are few relevant textbooks in South
  Australia, teachers often have to develop their own materials and
  units of study. Local street directory maps were used to document
  where we walked and to record information about magpie sightings. As
  reported in the school newsletter: Two science walks to Thomas Turner
  Reserve and along Dry Creek were undertaken to study magpie groups.
  At Dry Creek we also completed the water watch records for salinity
  and acidity for the creek which was still flowing.

Reflections on Peter's Story

The logical and scientific way that Peter involved his students reflected his vast previous experience as a naturalist. Involving parents during the walks to sections of Dry Creek and Thomas Turner Reserve ensured intergenerational interest. Having children constructing lego models of birds, tallying data collected, writing thank you letters to parent helpers, and participating in gardening sessions provided an integrated rich learning experience.
                                Wed 21st Oct  Wed 28th Oct

TOTAL NUMBER OF MAGPIES              29            23

maximum groups sizes                  6             6

males                                 8             5

females                               9             4

immature juveniles                    3             3

unknown                               5            10


trees                                 6             8

ground                               10            17

on or near building                   3

flying                                7             1


eating and collecting                 3             2

perching                              3             4

sitting walking                       9             9

nesting/nest construction             2             3

talking/singing                       2             3

grooming                              1             1

flying                                1             4

interacting with other magpies        3             8

Figure 5: Mathematics tally showing collated data. The children used a
tally system to record magpie numbers sighted.


Vicki teaches a Year 5 class at an inner city school and used a school camp experience as the catalyst for her science unit on magpies. This story is structured around two key themes: the Magic Spot and her sequence of science lessons. After each lesson, she describes the learning outcomes. She demonstrates that integrating different learning areas is a strength of her teaching approach.

Vicki's story

Magic Spot
  The context for the Magic Spot activity was the school camp;
  fifty-four excited, boisterous children actively participating in
  activities designed to build their knowledge and experience of the
  natural environment. Now imagine all fifty-four children sitting
  separately and silently in the natural bush for ten minutes! Not one
  child speaks or moves around. All are using their senses to look at
  the things around them, especially small things, to listen to the
  natural bush sounds, to touch the rough bark or soft moss, and to
  smell the aroma of the environment. They are recording their
  observations in words and pictures of their own particular, special
  'magic spot'. During camp, they will visit their magic spot on
  several occasions, at various times of the day.

  Back at school, the children use the writing they did in their magic
  spot to write poems, and their sketches for various forms of art

  We first experienced magic spot on camp at Arbury Park Outdoor School
  and have been including this activity in our camp program ever since.
  For the staff, it is the best ten minutes of the day and many of the
  students claim that it is their favourite activity too.

Vicki's Magpie Lesson Sequence

a. Engagement/initial activity.

Question: What birds do you see in the school yard?

Although some children were aware of birds that visited the yard, others needed the opportunity to observe.

Give each pair of students a photocopied picture of a variety of birds (I gave the bird silhouettes sheet).

Write a list of the features of birds. Note the differences in these features e.g. beaks: long, pointy, short, curved

Learning outcomes: Children were able to identify that different birds had different characteristics.

b. Discuss the reasons for these differences.

Question: Why do some birds have webbed feet or smaller claws?

Children were able to make the connection between these characteristics and habitat, food etc.

c. Observation 1.

Walk around the school and observe and sketch birds. Name them and make a list of their characteristics.

Children were able to identify the characteristics of local birds and make the connection with their habitat, food etc.

d. Introduce Operation Magpie and have the children sketch a magpie in their books, paying attention to the features we discussed earlier.

e. In pairs, discuss what they know about magpies and what they would like to know. From this, generate questions for research.

Some of these questions were: Where do Magpies live? What do they eat? How long do they live? Do they all look the same?

Children were able to identify what they knew and what they didn't know, and use their questions as a basis for research and observation.

f. Give out bird anatomy diagram (from which lists the bird parts with definitions and has a picture of a bird to be labelled (comprehension). Go through orally.

Children were able to learn the correct names of the body parts of birds.

g. Give out a photocopy of a magpie and using the previous sheet, label the body parts.

Children were able to transfer previously learnt knowledge of birds to magpies.

h. Research.

Find out about magpies, find the answers to your questions, discuss/share findings. Some students worked together to produce a power point presentation on magpies which they shared with others.

Children were able to use their research skills to find answers to the questions they had previously generated (making it more meaningful to them) and were able to share these.

i. Observation 2.

Find some birds in the yard and make a list of their behaviour. Discuss/share observations in relation to the magpie observation sheet. Go through the sheet so that the children are familiar with how to enter information. Found we needed a 'w' for walk as they were often observed walking as opposed to running. Also, some children began to develop techniques for observing the magpies when one child ran straight up to the birds which promptly flew away (creeping up, laying down or sitting quietly a short distance away, hiding behind trees or buildings using binoculars etc.).

Children were able to identify different behaviours in birds first before seeing the codes on the observation sheet. They understood the codes much better and were able to use this easily because they discovered the behaviours for themselves first. (The other year five class went straight to using the sheet and were constantly referring back to what letters they should be using for the behaviours).

j. Observe.

Observe magpies in the yard in teams of three for 20 minute intervals. We began with groups of two, but quickly found that we needed three: one to watch the birds, one to time the activity and one to record the information.

Children were able to develop strategies for observing magpies and modify these to suit different situations.

During this stage, children were coming to school and reporting on where they had seen magpies and what they were doing outside of school. One commented that he had not really taken much notice of magpies before and now he saw them everywhere. Another said that before we had studied magpies, he had hated them and was scared of them because he had been swooped. Now that he understood why they did that and what he could do about it, he thought they were okay.

Follow-up: Integration

Moths: Make a tally of the different behaviours observed and graph the information.

Science: What does the graph show? Can you make any statements about the behaviour of magpies? (use information gathered to form conclusions).

Science: Discuss any interesting similarities or differences between the observations.

Many students came back with stories of observing magpies in other places and some took observation sheets home with them to carry out observations during the holidays. One child reported seeing five dead magpies lying on the ground in a row in a nearby park.

Art: Various art forms related to the topic birds/magpies.

Drama: Small groups work, together to perform a short 'magpie dance' to music, based on their observations or magpie behaviour.

Reading: Magpie Island by Colin Thiele.

Writing: Genre writing using magpies as the topic. Genre options include a report (children who did this, chose to present it as a PowerPoint), narrative, exposition (e.g. magpies are/are not a danger to people), poetry, an article for the school newsletter.

Reflections on Vicki's Story

Vicki's story demonstrates a series of rich learning experiences about magpies that integrate Science with other learning areas.


This year we learnt about magpies. We got to observe them and record their behaviour for the scientists at the university. It was a really good thing to learn and I think I will use this knowledge throughout my life. It was really fun to observe them.

Figure 6: writing for the school newsletter.


Each of the teachers' stories describes a sequence of science learning experiences which occurred over several weeks. The emphasis on thinking and working scientifically to develop students' understanding about physical characteristics of magpies, behaviour and locations is evident. This collection of stories shows that the teachers were passionate about the topic, were capable at constructing interactive experiences, were able to integrate a wide range of learning areas effectively, were able to connect students to the local natural environment, and were able to benefit from engaging parents and the broader community.

What can be seen from the four teacher stories is how engaged the students were. This is evident by the way that students brought examples of things they saw on the weekend in parks, backyardsand when with their grandparents. The students were motivated to develop their background knowledge through participating in interactive learning experiences.

The science was explicit and central but one of the strengths apparent in all the teachers' stories was the way they wove other learning areas through the topic. The students' engagement with English literacy was evident through recording observations, constructing blogs, reading books such Magpie Island, The Best Beak in Boonaroo Bay and Waddle Giggle Gargle, writing their own stories and poetry. Using suburban street maps to record population of magpies and using tallies and graphs to represent the data collected, ensured that thinking and working mathematically occurred within a real context. The teachers used Science as the integrator with a range of other learning areas to provide connected learning experiences.

The teachers explicitly taught the students how to observe and helped them to develop these skills by providing opportunities to be in quiet places for a length of time, for example in Our Patch or Magic Spots. Recording observations allowed the students to look for similarities and differences and to develop confidence with identification of species as well as the sex and age, whether juvenile or mature.

As one student commented, 'It felt like real science!' Can this model be used more broadly to engage primary teachers on an on going basis? What has been the long term impact on the students of connecting to the natural world during this project? These questions will need to be the focus of future research. At this stage the outcomes ore encouraging as we start preparing for Operation Spider in 2010.


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Heather Lawes, Peter Matejcic, Cathy Taylor, Vicki Stewart are practicing classroom teachers who volunteered to be part of the focus groups.

Kathryn Paige, David Lloyd, Yvonne Zeegers, Philip Roetman and Christopher Daniels are academic staff from the School of Education and School of Natural and Built Environments at the University of South Australia.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Paige, Kathryn; Lawes, Heather; Matejcic, Peter; Taylor, Cathy; Stewart, Vicki; Lloyd, David; Zeeger
Publication:Teaching Science
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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