The florescent light of the hallway is blocked completely once you enter the dark, limestone cave. Rocks protrude from the walls, worms inch along the craggy terrain and the faint dripping of groundwater echoes through the expanse. This fantastic scene is not the set of a blockbuster film, but the entrance to an underground habitat and ecosystem exhibit created by the third grade students of Overall Creek Elementary.
The teachers and students of Overall Creek have turned 2 classrooms into a life-size and like ecosystem as the finale to a month long, student-led research project on the ecosystem of Tennessee's deciduous forest.
Teachers Hannelore Dickerson and Cherry Ross launched the initial project four years ago at Scales Elementary when they noticed students weren't fully engaged in the projects they were sending home.
"That is when the idea of a classroom based research assignment was spurred. We just immediately sought a change. We felt the project would give students real life experience in research and writing and allow them to feel empowered by their own hard work," explains Ms. Dickerson.
"Once they completed the projects, the teachers felt that having the student's research come to life would be a good reward for all their hard work," she continued.
The fellow Overall Creek third grade teachers hopped on board with the idea and students were arranged in groups and given specific research topics ranging from leaf cycles to groundwater pollution. Along with writing their research papers, students created a visual explanation of their findings on poster board and presented their findings to the school.
"Students were given a rubric to follow, questions to answer and a deadline to meet. We also discussed plagiarism and personal responsibility, it's a big deal," Ms. Dickerson revealed.
Teachers point out that the hands-on, student driven approach and connection to real life examples and experience are what make the project so special.
"The environment changes every year but the enthusiasm stays at peak levels because we are bringing something to life," mentioned Ms. Dickerson.
"Students from all around the school are excited about the project," explained Christie Honey, one the five participating teachers. "Classes from other grade levels have started signing up for tours and parents are invited to tour as well."
Each tour is altered to meet the touring grade level's teaching standards and to keep students interested. After the tour students return to their classroom and continue the learning via trivia questions and assignments.
"Another great thing about the project is that it aligns to STEAM- the science, technology, engineering, arts and math approach that Overall Creek has adopted. The project fits each component and since we utilize grade appropriate methods for each tour the students stay engaged," Ms. Honey continued.
"Although, it is hard to not be engaged as you navigate through the lifelike wilderness the students have created," she bubbled. "You will see critters, creatures and changes of terrain and they students who haven't seen it before are just fascinated. We have all four seasons, a pollution room, twilight room and cave," Ms. Honey concluded.