Caroline Knight likes to think in terms of knocking down classroom walls to make exciting things happen for her students. When looking for a special project for her Connections classes at Oak Park Elementary in Ocean Springs, the gifted teacher imagined a project that would reach beyond her group of students and allow everyone in the school to be a part of something larger.
For several years, Knight has worked with the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point and Audubon Mississippi to connect students to the endangered river and watershed that runs through the county. This year, with guidance from the Center and her principal Dr. Jennifer Pope, she applied for and received a STEM grant from Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding to spotlight a declining bird species that migrates throughout the Mississippi Flyway - the chimney swift.
“We needed to start with what is at home,” says Knight. “The river was a perfect catalyst.”
Knight worked with Mozart Dedeaux, Audubon Mississippi Director of Education and Digital Content, who suggested building a chimney swift tower, and Dr. Pope agreed this was a project that would fit perfectly at Oak Park.
Dedeaux and Center Director Mark LaSalle have worked with several groups and organizations throughout South Mississippi to construct chimney swift towers. Their hope is to eventually link all towers into a network from the Coast to North Mississippi, with even loftier goals of reaching into northern states.
The STEM grant was written to include the Ocean Springs High School trade class students who built the tower structure and also included special cameras to mount inside the tower. These cameras will allow students across the district to monitor and collect data on these special birds. Dedeaux provides data sheets to students so they can collect data such as number of eggs and chicks hatched to send to the North American Chimney Swift Conservation Association.
Going into the Connection’s classroom, Dedeaux provided insight to students about the importance of the chimney swift species in our environment including its decline and fascinated student’s with its diet. Knight then brought the performing arts into the picture by planning and directing a play based on Chimney Swifts and towers all around the world, empowering children to research and learn about birds, art and history.
“When we integrate the arts, children gain wisdom,” added Knight. “What an opportunity for our children to learn in a joyful, fun and different way.”
Students began creating sets and costumes, as well as researching towers throughout the world and history. They learned about the chimney swift, its benefit to society and its unfortunate decline. Students even wrote a song using the bird’s scientific name, chaetura pelagica, and used the song to introduce their hero, Swift Man. They wrote cheers calling for “Yo, More Mosquitos” in regard to the swift’s diet and encouraged parents and other students to participate by tying in the district’s mascot, the greyhound. The play, Swift Hounds, was presented to the student body and will soon hit the road touring to the district’s two other elementary schools. In addition, the students’ artwork will be featured in the nature art gallery at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center on May 19 where students will perform once more.
Through this Knight also hopes that students will become citizen scientists, sharing their observations and connecting with nature in their own backyards this summer. She plans to personally connect the students with the watershed on upcoming boat tours of the Pascagoula River and having them visit the newly constructed Pascagoula River Audubon Center, the premier nature center on the Gulf Coast.
“We hope to extend our partnerships with Audubon,” she adds. “Audubon partnerships are a powerful tool, and we hope to grow this project throughout the school district.”