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The Snake Project was born out of Rebecca’s interest in the wild caught snake she started caring for last summer. Of all the kids, she took a liking to him and asked to keep him long term. She learned about garter snakes and what they eat and how to care for them in captivity. Throughout the summer her interest grew and when it was time to discuss what she would study in science this year, she chose to use snakes as her entry into the world of biology.
Why Study Snakes?
The inspiration for the project was a wild caught garter snake found around our mailbox last spring as the weather was finally turning consistently warm. What made us turn the experience into a biology course?
- We had a live specimen to care for and learn about.
- Snakes are a window into how live organisms are organized and put together.
- Taking care of a snake requires a lot of research- so studying snakes and their morphology is a natural extension of the work involved.
- It isn’t just about the snake we have. It opens a world of exploration on many species and classes of organisms.
Snake Research Is The Basis for a Study of Biology
Seeking information and researching snakes on a deep level has led to exploring the following biological concepts:
- Cellular Structure & Function– animals cells to see what snake cells are like but also plant cells as a comparison.
- Skeletal & Muscular Systems– of snakes but also humans to see how they are the same and different
- Aestivation– survival mechanism of reptiles for when they are overheated
- Brumation– Reptilian hibernation
- Classification– traditional Linnaean classification with binomial nomenclature
- Digestion– Snake anatomy and function with a look at human digestion
- Excretory System
- Nervous System
- Respiratory System
- Reproductive System
- Circulatory System
- Communities & Populations– community interactions, characteristics of populations, biodiversity
- Recycling of Matter– nitrogen cycle, carbon cycle, water cycle, carbon dioxide-oxygen cycle
- Survey of the Animal Kingdom– Starting with the least complex to the most complex
We started with a list of things she wanted to know about and then the list expanded as time has gone on. Bring your kids to the table and let them take charge!
Resources for The Snake Project
This project was Rebecca’s creation right down to the resources she wanted to use. Below is a list containing the types of books and websites she used along with some specific titles if she found the book particularly useful.
Note that she is going beyond what is typically available to kids her age and seeking out expert materials.
- National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles & Amphibians– for field identification and information on particular snakes. Other field guides are nice too, but I like this version to keep on hand.
- Peterson Guide to Amphibians & Reptiles
- The Snake Scientist– Great non fiction book about a man who does snake research on garter snake.
- cK-12 Biology– an open source text book for high school biology. This is the one we have on our Kindles though there is a middle school version as well. This link is to the biology FlexBook page so you can see all of the offerings for books to download. There are also concept lists. Once you choose a concept, you’ll find all kinds of useful items for learning the material. It’s all free!
- Reptile Structure & Function– You can find video, flash cards, activities, links, applications, and assessments for most concepts.
- Reptile Reproduction– activities, etc on how reptiles mate and raise young
- Reptile Classification– The four orders of reptiles and their characteristics
- Reptile Ecology– Where you’ll find reptiles and what they eat, an overview
- Reptile Evolution– development of reptiles over time. I realize not everyone is looking for evolution information, but it’s here if you want to have a look.
- Analysis of Vertebrate Structure– Borrowed from the local veterinary school library. More on how she used this book in a moment.
- Clinical Anatomy & Physiology of Exotic Species– Specifically the chapter on General Anatomy & Physiology of Reptiles.
Some of these titles are pretty intimidating for most, but she enjoyed them. Even the books meant for veterinary school students had plenty to read that she understood based on the other work she has done. There are pictures and diagrams to decipher. Rebecca says that it was difficult sometimes not knowing all the terms, but she gained a greater overall understanding of what she was after. Definitely a win!
Take away: Don’t be afraid to get college and professional level resources. They will provide more detail and less overview which will result in a deeper knowledge of the topic. So much better than always skimming the surface!
Seeking Experts for Project Discoveries
Rebecca exhausted the resources she initially got from the library and off of our bookshelves pretty quickly. She poured through them and made lots of notes. As she worked, she began to have more questions which she wrote down.
One question she wanted to answer was, “How do snakes move?” To answer the question she reached out to some experts she knows.
- A professor at our local veterinary school
- A student at the local veterinary school
- She simply explained what she was studying, what she wanted to know, and asked them for any resources they might have on the topic.
Later, when she needed help checking the health of her brumating snake she:
- Contacted students from the Herpetology Club at the local university- she had just seen them present a few days earlier and reached out to them.
- They contacted an expert they knew and gave Rebecca suggestions.
- Checked in with the local pet store– to ask about snake care. This is not a chain store, but a locally owned small animal store with many reptiles for sale.
Some of the most valuable information she has gained during her studies this year have come from experts in the field. Don’t hesitate to contact your local university. If you have trouble making the right connections, try your state’s land grant university which is home to the Cooperative Extension. Their charter includes outreach to the public and you may have success.
Snake Project Success
The project has been successful enough to continue all year. I started out with the idea that we could commit to the first quarter and depending on whether or not she was still learning and heading into new territory, we could keep it going. Here’s a look at some of the big moments so far:
- Temperature Study– On our basement to determine whether it was safe to brumate her snake there for the winter. She used a temperature recorder used for tracking the temp of chemical shipping crates and kept in the basement in December. She put the temperature tapes in her project notebook and graphed the results. Steady temps for sure!
- Food Study– She researched what garter snakes eat and how much of each thing. She was able to feed him up until worms and slugs were no longer available.
- Brumation vs Feeding for The Winter– She calculated how much it would cost to feed her snake its winter meals vs brumating him for the winter months. Given her careful research and conclusions, we allowed her to brumate the snake.
- Herpetology Class– at our homeschool co-op this spring. While she is not learning much new content, she has enjoyed seeing and learning about different reptiles. This particular class is student taught which is unique.
- Designed a Snake Garden– With information about shelter, plants, and food, Rebecca mapped out a garden which would attract snakes. Just what you want, right?
- Brumation Observations– She checked on her snake and kept notes on his demeanor while he was brumating.
- Snake Morphology– She has done extensive studying on the structure and function of snake anatomy with labeled diagrams and notes sometimes comparing them to human anatomy and physiology.
- Snake Diversity– Explored types of snakes and where they live, safe vs non-safe snakes, etc.
The Mentor’s Role in The Snake Project
Since this is a student led project, what have I done all this time?
- Kept my own project journal based on her work– I actually have all her projects in one notebook separated by tabs. Too many projects to keep after to have one for each!
- Jot down her ideas when she tells me about them– I can use it later as reminders for her.
- Keep a list of questions she asks– This is great fodder for when the project slows down. I can ask whether or not she ever found out about __________.
- Make equipment/materials available– I don’t necessarily advertise what we have, but I do make sure she knows what’s around when she is searching for the right thing. For example, we’ve used the temperature recorders before so she knew we had them on hand.
- Advice on contacting experts– She knew who she could contact, but little reminders about etiquette are always nice and making sure it’s a kind email is important!
- Help to the the resources– Once they are identified, I make sure they get here if my help is needed (like picking up a book at the library).
- Available for Conferencing– Being generally available to answer questions and point in the right direction if stuck is time well spent.
- Provide the time– Just as with her history and fashion projects, we’ve afforded the time for her studies. She is eager to learn biology. Why not have it happen within the context of a great project that she has designed?
- Keep tabs on forward momentum– This is big for me. I want to be laid back, but I need to see forward movement on projects and not stalling!
Wrapping Up The Snake Project
As the school year draws to a close, what is next for The Snake Project?
Rebecca’s project journal is full of notes, sketches, labeled diagrams, lists, questions, resources, etc. It’s my hope that she will put all the data together in a way that can be remembered and presented to others which will help to cement what she has experienced this year. Ideas I’ve heard her toss around:
- A Snake Encyclopedia
- New Snake Enclosure
- Branch out into other reptiles- She’d like a Gargoyle Gecko
- Book- with information she chooses
- FAQ book/poster
I’ll be sure to share the last few months of the project as well as the final result when the time comes.
It’s been a fulfilling experience so far and I think much more meaningful to her as a student of biology to have filtered the topic through the lens of her interest in snakes.
I’m looking forward to her next science project!
If you’d like to learn more about this approach to learning, check out Project Based Homeschooling by Lori Pickert. This book has given form to ideas I’ve been using for years! You might also be interested in Lori’s blog Camp Creek Blog- Project Based Homeschooling where she has a wonderful community of families with similar philosophies of learning.