Buzzing Around: Creatively Teaching Science to Second Graders

Shows three BU Wheelock student teachers leading a lesson in a classroom
(L-to-r, standing) Katie Yermal, Avery Saulnier, and Nicole Zwicker lead the “Buzzing Around” lesson at the William Trotter School in Boston.

It’s no mean feat to translate complex biological processes into lessons that second graders will easily grasp. Teaching science to young children requires creativity, thoughtfulness, flexibility, and an unerring sense of what students will respond to. 

TJ McKenna, a lecturer in science education at BU Wheelock, was more than ready to meet the challenge when he and his students Avery Saulnier, Katie Yermal, and Nicole Zwicker (all Wheelock’20) developed “Buzzing Around,” a lesson plan for second graders on bee pollination. Published in Entomology Plans for Elementary Educators (University of Nebraska), the lesson plan uses role-playing, question-and-answer sessions, and video to engage young learners in exploring the relationship between bees and flowers. 

“Buzzing Around” grew out of a partnership between BU Wheelock and the William Monroe Trotter School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. As part of an Elementary Science Methods class, McKenna and his students visited a second-grade classroom at the Trotter to teach students about entomology, or the study of insects.  

At the beginning of “Buzzing Around,” teachers introduce a series of intriguing images and short videos related to bees and pollination, including the “waggle dance” that bees use to tell each other where to find nectar. To illustrate the process, students are shown a video of a bee pollinating a flower.   

Teachers then divide the students up into three simulated bee colonies. Tutors stationed around the classroom pretend to be flowers with some (but not all) holding “nectar” (in the form of Cheeto Puffs) while students go around the classroom to pollinate flowers and use a waggle dance to show one another where the good flowers are, just as a real bee would. At the end of the lesson, the class reconvenes to discuss what they’ve learned—and do the waggle dance again, this time just for fun. 

Saulnier, Yermal, and Zwicker are now all teachers with their own classrooms. We spoke to them and McKenna for this Q&A. 

BU Wheelock: In “Buzzing Around,” you teach second-grade children about how bees pollinate flowers. What gave you the idea to teach this specific lesson to this age group? 

TJ McKenna: At the Trotter, we work closely with Brenda Richardson—a veteran science teacher and all-around rock-star mentor—to observe high-quality science teaching, with the goal of BU students eventually taking their turn to lead a lesson. Brenda and I structure each semester around the science topics from Boston Public Schools while providing opportunities for students to build from their own passions and interests. With the topic of insects being the focus, Nicole, Katie, and Avery decided to focus on bees.

Nicole Zwicker: We started brainstorming creative ways to make pollination really click for second graders. We knew that they were an active group of students, so we wanted to incorporate movement into the lesson, which is when the idea of students becoming the pollinators came to mind. I brought up how I had learned about the waggle dance in an undergraduate class I had taken years ago, and we knew that we had to have the students do it as they buzzed around looking for flowers. Then it didn’t take long for us to think of everyone’s favorite messy snack to use as pollen!

McKenna: After this initial step, students conducted a rehearsal where they taught the lesson to their peers and me as if they were at the Trotter with students. The discussions we had following their rehearsal provided key feedback on opportunities to improve the lesson and to help to make them more comfortable when they lead the lesson. I knew from the rehearsal that “Buzzing Around” was going to be something special—and a hit with their Trotter students.

Q: You used a physical activity—dancing—to help reinforce the idea in students’ minds. What are the benefits of this kind of instruction, especially for young children? 

Avery Saulnier: Whole-body learning is one of my favorite ways to incorporate engagement in lessons. The cool thing about teaching and learning is that there is no “one size fits all” here. Everyone has a way that they learn best—visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. We wanted to touch on different learning styles, and the waggle dance was a way to integrate a few of them at once. And why not build movement breaks right into your lessons!

Katie Yermal: We wanted to brainstorm a way to really engage the students with the content through physical activity and things that they could connect to or see in their everyday life.  I think we all know that kids learn best when they are having fun. And what could be more fun than dancing and eating Cheetos?

Q: Have you created similar lesson plans to teach young children about science? If so, what were they? 

McKenna: Each semester, we create science lesson plans that fall into two categories: lessons to teach to Trotter students and transdisciplinary units where science and engineering are inextricably connected to social studies and language arts. This allows me to help our students see the difference between older conceptions of “learning about science” and a new vision of science teaching that supports students in figuring out science ideas through engaging in science practices and use of cross-cutting concepts, such as patterns, scale, energy, and matter.

Too often, people remember their own school science experiences as being about memorizing facts or doing labs simply to confirm ideas in textbooks. The new Framework for K–12 Science Education and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) describe a vision for science education where students are the ones who are driving the learning process by explaining phenomena and solving meaningful problems. These are challenging lessons to create, and when the University of Nebraska—where I completed my master’s degree in entomology—reached out looking to feature high-quality examples of entomology lessons for elementary teachers, I knew “Buzzing Around” would be a great example of what is possible.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about teaching entomology to second graders?

Saulnier: I loved how involved they were in these lessons. You would think they would be scared or hesitant working with all different kinds of insects, but they were fully invested and all in! We got some ewws here and there, but then you would see students completely come out of their shell to interact with or get closer to the insects. It was like they almost forgot they were at school.

McKenna: The diversity of insects provides a plethora of opportunities for sense-making about science. For example, many people do not realize that many species of insects like dragonflies can spend years living in water before they emerge to become the adult stage that we are used to. In this larval stage, they have all sorts of structural adaptations to help them survive including a method of propulsion where they bring water in from their mouths and shoot it out their back end to fly through the water.

My background in entomology allows me to be able to help our students see the potential in using insects that might be outside of the norm in classrooms. We’ve used blue death-feigning beetles for years to talk about different adaptations which may help or hurt an organism’s survival. Blue death-feigning beetles are harmless and dramatically “play dead” when startled—a phenomenon that generates a ton of great questions from students. When I model these kinds of lessons for students, they in turn begin to think more creatively about designing lesson plans of their own.

Q: When you taught this lesson at the Trotter, how did it go? 

Saulnier: There was such an element of surprise throughout the lesson. There was a little bit of a competition going on between the “colonies/hives,” and they didn’t know if they were going to a “flower with pollen” or not. They were smiling and cheering each other on the whole time. When the Waggle Song came on, they didn’t want to stop playing it. It was a true win for a teacher to see that reaction during a lesson.

Zwicker: The laughter! I remember the laughter as they waggled around the classroom and cheered for their classmates! Even students who we thought might be too shy to waggle in front of their classmates were participating. It was awesome to see how much fun they were having while learning. We had so much fun while teaching it, too!

McKenna: When the University of Nebraska asked me to contribute to this book on entomology lessons, I thought that this might be a great opportunity to highlight the exciting work happening in science education here at BU Wheelock. Our students are incredibly well prepared for leading their own classrooms, and this published chapter demonstrates their ability to create innovative learning opportunities for their future students. While the publication process can take a long time, Katie, Avery, and Nicole were excited to do the extra work to share their ideas more broadly—and even more excited when I was able to tell them that it was finally published!

Q: How does it feel to be published authors?

Saulnier: It feels surreal. When TJ first emailed us about this possibility, I didn’t realize exactly what the outcome would be. When he informed us it was officially published, I sat there for a minute and really thought about what an honor this is. I just feel so proud and excited that this is a new piece of my teaching identity!

Zwicker: It feels incredible. I am so proud of all the hard work and passion that went into this lesson plan. I’m even more excited that now other students and teachers get to enjoy learning about pollination in a fun, meaningful way. My current students think I’m super cool now, too—total bonus!