GCDS News - Magazine

By Ellie Molyneux, Grade 5 Science Teacher and UES Sustainability Coordinator

In an increasingly interconnected world, it is empowering to understand how systems interact, and how each of us shapes the systems around us. In 5th-grade science, we dedicated our spring trimester to a deep dive into the form and function of systems. By investigating our school food system, the end-of-day dismissal system, and the town recycling system, we discovered how we connect to larger-scale operations, and how we can affect change. With the aim of further exploring systems and related concepts of equilibrium, limits, and cycles, the 5th grade embarked on a new curricular adventure: the first-ever Great Chicken Project!

Project-Based Learning

We began the project by looking at a real-world problem in our school community: Our GCDS French Farm had extra space for more chickens, and our older flock needed new young replacements. As a grade, we wondered “How could we raise happy and healthy chickens that could later move to build our flock at French Farm?”

Launching Inquiry

We knew we had an end goal of raising chickens, but at first, we didn’t know how to achieve it! We started by firing up our curiosity and recording over 100 different questions we had about chickens and the systems they connect to. Students wondered: What is the difference between an egg that hatches, and an egg I eat at breakfast? Where will the chickens live in the classroom? How much does it cost to raise baby chicks? We grouped our questions into categories, and each student chose a category to become an “egg-spert” in. Everyone had a part to play in the project.

Collaborative Planning

We spent a week conducting preliminary research, proposing strategies, and negotiating compromises. Once we crafted a project proposal that all 84 students and French Farm could agree on, we requested a budget of $500 for the project. After funding was secured, students worked collaboratively to plan, prioritize, and organize, building a timeline for the project. While students considered our limits of time, classroom space, and budget, we also prioritized sustainability. We decided that all plans we made had to be good for the planet, good for people, and of course, good for the chickens!

Communication & Perseverance

Students communicated with clarity while using their critical thinking skills when sorting through the many options for sourcing eggs, before deciding to work with a local Connecticut hatchery owner. Students secured the egg breeds they wanted for $80 and

the incubator for $160 dollars. At first, students noted that it felt like a lot of money to spend but supporting local businesses and buying high-quality electronics seemed worth the cost. When we ran into complex questions about whether the chicks should be fed medicated or unmedicated food or the safest way to keep baby chicks warm, we consulted with experts, including student French Farm experts Cate Auerswald ’26 and Violet McCann ’24, our local vet, French Farm animal expert and GCDS Trustee Dr. Wear Culvahouse, and our French Farm Manager Mr. Aaron Sinay. Students brought back their findings to share with classmates and we all gained the knowledge needed to become parents of healthy, happy chickens!

Design Thinking

One challenge we faced was deciding where to keep “teenage” chickens after they grew out of their first class-room brooder box but were not yet big enough to safely join the adult chickens’ coop at French Farm. Students decided that the most sustainable and cost-effect option was to build our own movable coop. A team of motivated students crafted research-based architectural plans, and then collaborated with Peter McKenna, Upper Elementary and Middle School Woodshop teacher, to finalize their design. Over two weeks, students measured, sawed, and nailed together an ideal structure. In passing by the woodshop, you could hear builders discussing “Do you think we should add a lettuce piñata or swings for entertainment in the coop?”

Cycles and Limits

As hatching day approached in the 5th grade, students’ sense of joy and suspense grew palpable. Many excited students watched “Egg-Cam” updates on the weekend! We had a hatch rate within the normal range, and upon holding a baby chick for the first time, a mesmerized student stammered, “I can feel its heartbeat. It is so precious!” We experienced a mix of joy and sadness as we celebrated the chicks’ arrival and honored the eggs that did not develop into chicks. Students created a fair and fun co-parenting schedule for the seven chicks that did hatch, ensuring all students and chickens had plenty of time for socialization.

Change Over Time

As the chicks grew up in the classroom, we observed as they grew from “40 grams of a cotton ball body with toothpick legs” into sturdier chickens who “required lots of cage cleaning, which was so worth it because I got to hold my chicken.” Before the end of the school year, students visited French Farm to evaluate the poultry set-up, finalize the “Our Chicken Stories” book for visitors, and reflect on how they and their chickens all connect to bigger systems. Students acknowledged how they really relied on each other because this project was too much work for “just one person,” and they saw how each person played a part in making the whole system function for people, the planet, and for chickens. The reflection process led us to ask new questions about how we can sustainably balance the needs of humans and other living things, and how all animals, including humans, grow and learn over time. These are big questions that students can take with them to Middle School, as they continue to investigate how the world’s systems work!

While the formal responsibility and involvement of 5th grade science students ended with the end of the school year, students’ learning and love for chickens will be carried forward. Next, the French Farm collaborators will ensure the well-being of our chickens, and the rising

6th graders will have the opportunity to increase their involvement in the farm at GCDS. As our farm and our community’s needs continue to evolve, there will always be opportunities to design future projects that address a need in our surrounding systems.