“We were literally seeing mice run across our floors during our morning meetings.” High Tech High’s brand new building in Chula Vista was surrounded by open fields in an undeveloped area that had been gifted by the city. An unforeseen consequence was an endless stream of field mice besieging the school from the open terrain surrounding the building. In Jeff Govoni’s fifth grade classrooms, the students were ready to go to war. But how could they remove the mice without trapping and killing them? According to Jeff, “this was one of those projects that had an in-the-moment authentic purpose that project-based teachers dream about.”
After researching the rodents’ local predators and carefully considering the impact each might have on the school environment, students ultimately decided that owls would be the safest and most effective choice to naturally reduce the rodent population. The students really wanted to bring in stray cats and give them homes around the school, but discussion and debate led them to decide that feeding and caring for the cats would become too difficult. Snakes were also a popular idea until one of the students mentioned that her brother, in kindergarten, was terrified of snakes. The only two local predators left to debate were hawks and owls. It was during the research of these two predators that one of the students discovered the existence of owl boxes.
This project was featured in the 2021 book Changing the Subject: Twenty Years of Projects from High Tech High. You can learn more about the book and the projects within by visiting the official website.
All of the students researched, designed, and built their own unique owl houses. The special features of these shelters allow owls to safely multiply without their eggs being raided by hawks. Each team of students created three separate prototypes: One, at a smaller scale made of poster-board, which they used to refine their blueprints. Then, one at full scale using cardboard. Finally, they designed, built, and stained their final products, which were made of high-grade plywood and based on their own unique blueprints. Student research revealed that the owl boxes could be any shape so long as each box had the specific features that saved the eggs from hawk attacks.
Students also created slide decks to present their research and wrote persuasive letters to project backers that successfully raised more than half of the funding necessary for materials.
Jeff was “thrilled and surprised at the variety of skills this project touched.” In math, students used measurement, conversion, fractions, mixed numbers, area, perimeter, and made two-dimensional nets that folded into three dimensional products. In writing, research-based persuasive letters to raise funds revealed the students’ deep knowledge of local predators as well as the owl boxes themselves. Along the way, there were many opportunities for assessment, including plans, scale models, multiple drafts of persuasive essays and letters, and PowerPoint presentations.
An exhibition for family and community members was held, showing off the final products as well as the process. But the real impact was felt a few months later, when owls came to nest in the boxes, and the rodent problem was solved.