Spring is a great time for teaching about life cycles since examples of new growth and birth are all around us in nature and on the farm. One way to bring the exciting experience of emerging life into the classroom is by incubating chicken eggs. This may sound like a major undertaking, and it is one that should be carefully planned because you will be working with living creatures. But as Katie Birdsey says, "It really isn't as difficult or time consuming as you might think."
Katie is a first grade teacher at the Maple Avenue School in Goffstown. For the past two springs Katie has incubated chicken eggs with her students and she can't wait to do it again this year. I interviewed Katie to find out what tips she's learned that she could share with other educators. Here is what she shared to inspire others.
NHAITC: What are some of the lessons you are able to teach by incubating eggs in your class?
KB: I love this unit because you can teach all across the curriculum. The children keep a journal so they practice writing; they record the temperature of the incubator, and do other record keeping. I create a chick dictionary with terms that they need to know during the process which increases their vocabulary. Math lessons include measuring the size and weight of the eggs, estimating the weight of the chicks, and the hatch date. There is a lot of literature that relates (see the book list), topics such as life cycles and other science lessons are so easy to illustrate. The possibilities are endless.
NHAITC: What are some lessons you've learned over the years, including helpful tips and pitfalls to avoid?
KB: Having a reliable incubator is key. It's important to check the thermometer every day to make sure the temperature remains consistent. We do have someone come in on weekends and turn the eggs once a day, but I don't think this is critical. We do turn them 3 times per day when we're in school. The children enjoy helping with this, and it doesn't take long.
It is important to prepare the kids for disappointments. Some of the eggs will not hatch and others may produce weak or deformed chicks. I tell them that we are doing our best, and sometimes even when you do everything right, things don't work out the way we want. It is an important lesson for children to learn, just prepare them for it. I've never had a problem; it's all a learning experience for each of us.
NHAITC: What is the most challenging part of this activity?
KB: Finding a home for the chicks, definitely arrange that ahead of time! We keep them for a couple of days but they grow fast and require a consistent temperature in a brooder. I just use an old aquarium, but they can quickly outgrow that depending on how many you have.
Untimely hatching is also challenging. Last year the eggs hatched when the children were there to see them. It might not always work out that way and that can be disappointing. I took movies during the process so that if we miss a hatching, at least I can show the video to future classes. [See resources about chick cams].
NHAITC: What is the most rewarding part for you and your students?
KB: The whole thing is very rewarding. The chicks are so adorable; the kids get really excited and remember this experience and what they learn.
NHAITC: Do you have a favorite memory you can share with us?
KB: Watching the children's eyes when the eggs are hatching, they are speechless, they can't get over the excitement. The children write about the chicks and their feelings, it is very special.
After hearing about Katie's experience, if you are inspired to try incubating some eggs you'll need a few basic materials to start with. The first, as Katie mentioned is a reliable incubator. NHAITC has several which can be loaned out, but they are currently reserved for the month of May. Some of the county Cooperative Extension offices loan out incubators. I surveyed the ten counties and found that Cheshire, Grafton and Coos do have incubators available. Merrimack, Hillsboro, Carroll and Sullivan no longer have incubators. I did not hear back from Rockingham, Strafford or Belknap, so it would be worth checking with them. County extension offices can be found from the main Coop Extension website: www.extension.unh.edu
Other sources of incubators include local farm stores such as Agway or from on-line businesses. The Hova-Bator incubator is available directly from the manufacturer at www.gqfmfg.com or via science suppliers such as Nasco or even from places like Amazon. The cost range is $50-$125 depending on style and source. Be sure the incubator comes with a thermometer or that you get one. It is an essential piece of equipment for this project.
Getting fertile eggs may be more of a challenge. These can also be purchased from stores or online. However if you have local farmers in your area, they are more likely to take the chicks back when you are done with them. You can't return them to mail order stores!
If you are interested in borrowing curriculum material, NHAITC does have a variety of books, hand outs and resources available for loan.