"Can you smell the cat food?" asked Bush Elementary School teacher Terry Smith to her Universal Prekindergarten students. "Opossums have weak eyesight, meaning they can't see very well but they use their sense of smell to find food."
"It smells yucky!" said one student.
"To you it doesn't smell good but to an opossum out in the middle of the night, it smells delicious. I'm going to give you a chance to become an opossum and find your food through only your sense of smell. Let's all squint our eyes, get down on all fours and crawl along the different colored strings laid out across the room. At the end, you'll find food in a bowl. Just use your sense of smell to figure out what that food is."
Bush UPK students Shelby Doud, Carah Ormsby, Kaylee Keppel and Emberli Kozaczki measure fellow student Emma Harrington to see if she is as big as an opossum while UPK teacher Terry Smith looks on.
Ms. Smith dimmed the lights to simulate nighttime and students crawled around the room "becoming" opossums searching for food.
"OK, opossums what did you smell? Was it hard to tell what was in the bowl?
"Gum," said one student
"What did the gum smell like?"
"That's right, very good."
Ms. Smith worked with her students on the GEMS (Great Explorations in Math and Science) series called "Mother Opossums and Her Babies" created by the University of Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science. In this research-based series of fun, exploratory activities, young children learn about opossums and other marsupials, and about animal behavior in general. Drama, role-playing, and art are interwoven with science, math, and language arts as students make model opossum pouches, create baby opossums with pipe-cleaner tails, and sniff out and munch on opossum snacks. Throughout the unit, children gain practice measuring, estimating, and counting, and sum up their discoveries in a book of drawings and writings about opossums.
Another activity that students do is to see if they are as big as an opossum. A life-sized drawing is laid on the floor, to give a visual representation of its size, and each student lies down next to the drawing. Students are shown how to measure their length, in comparison with the opossum, with a ruler.
The GEMS kits come with all the information for the teacher to perform the many different activities. Students use skills such as observing, comparing, describing, estimating and counting, along with learning about animal behavior, animal life cycles, measurement and real-life applications. Students begin by getting to know opossums and become mother opossums by carrying in a brown paper bag tied around their waist in their "pouch." The students are given tiny, pink, life-sized paper opossums to take care of and carry around all day. They learn about young opossums growth and development and create their own with a pipe cleaner tail.
The GEMS unit is just one of many activities that UPK students perform throughout their day. The GEMS kits meet national and state standards and the National Science Teachers Association recommends this kits for UPK and first graders. UPK activities, like the GEMS kits, are geared towards getting students ready to enter kindergarten.