Prove your humanity

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The Campus Laboratory School at Carlow University in Pittsburgh is an independent Catholic school for grades Pre-K through 8. But recently through a collaboration with conservation groups and an artist, it became a place where educators experimented with an interdisciplinary approach to teach students about birds.

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Third grader Finn McCloud was one of dozens of students in grades 3 through 8 who chose themed workshops throughout the morning. In the school’s art room, he used blue and green crayons to decorate a paper oval the length of his arm – a wing to be attached later with pipe cleaners.

“We’re learning what different types of body parts do for a bird,” he said. “The wing helps it fly, helps it stay warm.”

Nick Liadis, an avian conservation biologist and the founder and executive director of Bird Lab, gave a virtual presentation about conservation and bird banding to some of the middle school students last fall.

During this art room workshop, he wanted students to imagine themselves as birds. He hopes the special morning of learning will make students more curious about the birds around them.

“The really wonderful thing about birds is that they’re everywhere,” Liadis said. “And they can really connect kids to an ecosystem.”

Liadis worked on this workshop with artist Sarah Zeffiro of Zart Studios. She is also the program director and instructor of art education at Carlow University. She said looking at birds through art and other disciplines brings learning to life for these students.

“They’re talking together. Mixed ages are working together. Students are asking questions, and interacting with educators. So it’s just a really celebratory day,” Said Zeffiro.

Zeffiro said Liadis will come back to Carlow to speak with graduate students in an interdisciplinary learning class about how to approach their own projects.

Other workshops for intermediate and middle school students included machine learning, painting birdhouses, poetry, and even nature and sports.

And of course, there was a music component.

In the basement, the school’s music teacher, Anna Sproul, preloaded bird calls on a platform called Soundtrap. Students worked together to re-arrange the sounds and add back beats and music to create their own tunes.

Fourth grader Genevieve Tan chose a northern cardinal as the centerpiece of her composition. 

“I was just trying to make it into a good rhythm, but it makes me feel kind of relaxed, in like a safe place. And I’m calm,” Tan said. 

Sproul said she hopes the exercise will lead students to recognize birds in their area through sound, as well as sight.

“They’ll hear it and they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s the hermit thrush. That’s the piloted woodpecker. That’s the northern cardinal,’” she said.

The Campus Laboratory School’s art teacher Leigh Roche was one of the organizers of the day. She said this approach to learning about birds gives students a fun way to explore some of their interests and talents.

“I think it’s for them really to have the opportunity to experience connecting this theme across disciplines and maybe even learning new ways to think about things in the process,” she said.

Roche said a grant from the Shea Foundation supports artists visiting the school for programs like this, and a school fundraiser helped bring Wildbird Recovery, a wildlife rehabilitation group, to the interdisciplinary day. She said there was a lot of support from the school for the special programming, and hopes to do it all again next year.