I have signed my locally developed (essentials) science class up to participate in the spiders in space project that is being sponsored by NASA during the upcoming Shuttle flight (STS – 134). On board this launch there will be some spidernauts. Once the shuttle has established itself in a regular orbit these spidernauts will be used to observe the effects of microgravity on their ability to spin webs.
Our classroom, as well as many others, will be running the control experiment for this exciting experiment. While the spidernauts are spinning away on the space shuttle our spiders will be spinning away on Earth and we will be able to compare our webs daily through the beauty of modern technology and video streaming!
In order to facilitate this experiment I am using the Smarter Science framework. Before these high needs learners could jump into running a control experiment for NASA some background knowledge needed to be obtained. I have used the teachers’ resource manual*** provided from NASA as my primary source of ideas and information while planning how to scaffold this unit for the students.
We spent the first week learning about spiders. I started out by engaging the students’ prior knowledge by asking an open ended question: “Tell me about a time you saw a spider.” (In our part of the world we have all seen spiders.) Everyone was given a chance to respond and a variety of stories came out, proving once again that “literacy floats on a sea of talk”.
As a motivational opener I printed out a copy of the page*** in the manual with the labelled line drawing of the anatomy of the spider for each student. Then I cut them up into jigsaw pieces and put the students pieces into separate envelopes labelled with their names. (When cutting up the pictures I used my professional judgement to determine how many jigsaw pieces each student could handle – some received a page cut into only nine pieces while others received up to 24 pieces.) Each student received their “mail” and a piece of graph paper to glue their assembled puzzle on. (The graph paper helps them keep things organized in straight lines.) While they were piecing their puzzles together the students had to observe the anatomical features of the spiders very closely. They began to comment on what they were seeing:
“Why are there so many little hairs on the legs?”
“Are those pinchers on the ends of the legs?”
“Are the eyes really in rows like that?”
“What are these shapes at the back of the spider?”
By the time the students had completed their puzzles they had a deeper understanding of spider anatomy as well as the biologically correct terms for most of their major body parts. To reinforce this learning I then gave them a worksheet of an unlabelled anatomical drawing of a spider and they had to label it using their completed puzzles as a reference.
Now that the students had engaged both their prior knowledge of spiders and learned about spider anatomy I passed out the post-it notes and asked them to jot down any questions they were wondering about spiders. The questions were then read out and sorted into those that could be answered by research and those that could be answered by experimentation. After lengthy discussion it was determined that although many of the questions could be the basis of experimentation they could all probably be answered by research.
The questions were:
1. Why do spiders have so many eyes?
2. How do spiders climb walls?
3. Do spiders sleep?
4. How many types of spiders are there?
5. How many babies do spiders make?
6. How are the babies born?
7. How big do tarantulas grow?
8. Where do tarantulas live?
9. What do spiders eat?
10. How long do they live?
11. What do spiders do in the winter?
This was an excellent list of student generated questions and covered everything I wanted the students to learn about spiders except for how the web is woven, so I incorporated weaving a web into the next day’s lesson while the students used the laptops to research the answers. I set up the research session by printing out a set of the question list for each student and then gluing the questions onto cue cards. There was one question per card. Each student’s set of questions were on a different colour cue card. As the student’s found the answers to the questions they jotted them down onto the corresponding cue cards.
The next day the students were told that we were going to weave a spider web and catch all their correct answers in the web. I had cleared off one of my cork boards in preparation for this activity. I opened up a computer screen to a clear photo of a spider web. We discussed where to start in order to make a copy of the spider web on the cork board. The students quickly identified the center of the orb as the key to the entire construction design. So, we did some measuring to find the center of the cork board and used push pins and yarn to establish lines running from the center to the edges of the cork board. I then showed the students how a spider would start at the center of the orb and weave its silk in and out of the radii in an ever increasing spiral. This is when I learned that no one in the room knew what a spiral is and the importance of spirals in nature. Eureka! A teachable moment! (more later)
As we constructed the web together there was lots of discussion about how it was harder than it looks and that spiders must be very clever in order to be able to weave webs with such apparent ease. The students then took turns reading out the questions and answers they had written on their cue cards and attaching them to the spider web. This means that every single question was asked and answered several times, excellent reinforcement for those who do not learn something the first time they hear it.
Now my class are all experts on spiders. Tomorrow I am going to teach a whole lesson on spirals in nature. Then I will spend the rest of the week helping them to learn about microgravity and helping them design and built habitats for their spiders.
There will be much more to report on this project. Stay tuned!