A “Whale” of Fun Learning at Penn Elementary School

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Provided by Prince William County Schools (PWCS)

This past school year, Penn Elementary School students took part in a year-long partnership with National Geographic. Students learned about the ocean and one of its biggest residents, whales.

Loriann Pawlik, former administrative intern at Penn Elementary, who is now an assistant principal at Kerrydale Elementary, is a National Geographic Certified Educator. She was selected for a National Geographic Educator-Explorer partnership. Pawlik was teamed with Dr. Shane Gero, a National Geographic wildlife biologist and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. Working together, Pawlik and Gero developed lesson plans for Penn Elementary fifth-graders.

Using Skype, Gero was able to ‘bring’ students to his location off the Island of Dominica, located in the eastern Caribbean. He shared some of his research on whales, show how scientists study whales at sea, and provide a tour of his boat. The real-life connection taught students about ocean topography, regional whale calls, and whale natural cycles – which included diving deep to feed. They also learned about family relationships, sound, light, geography, and even echolocation while playing the game Marco Polo “whale-style.”

Through lessons, students began to recognize an issue that the whales face. Ocean squid is a favorite food of whales and plastic bags in water appear to be squid. A Geo-Challenge project on ocean plastics taught students about plastic waste. Students collected used plastic straws from their cafeteria for a month, which provide an estimated monthly usage. They mapped how plastic, dropped into a stream near the school, could travel down to Dominica. The eye-opening project encouraged students to raise awareness about plastic waste. They created a hallway bulletin board to share their findings with fellow students.

At the completion of the year, it was determined that nearly 20 different Standards of Learning objectives related to real-world connection were covered through the lessons provided by the partnership.

At the end of the school year, Gero made a special trip to Virginia to attend the the fifth-grade school promotion ceremony and present Junior National Geographic Explorer certificates to students.

Pawlik and Penn Elementary students were also in a video produced by National Geographic’s Educator Network.

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