Thomas Fleming students contrive insect hotels

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A fifth-grader in Jeff Guilmette’s class uses a power drill during an arts integration project at Thomas Fleming School last Friday, Oct. 27. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

Insects around Essex will have cozy new homes to inhabit later this month thanks to innovative fifth-graders at Thomas Fleming School.

Last Friday, chainsaws buzzed and hammers clunked as students in Jeff Guilmette’s class hunkered down in Lisa Foley‘s art room for their second-to-last construction day. Their assignment — to build insect hotels — is the second arts integration and makerspace project for which the two teachers have teamed up.

“Any time you put the power into the kids’ hands, and they can guide their own learning and apply the skills I’ve given them for background knowledge, they take more ownership in their learning, it’s more powerful for them,” Guilmette said. “And to see a finished product is so awesome to watch.”

As students Will Knox, Harrison Hutton and Ben Smith put the finishing touches on their bee and ladybug hotel, they solidified Guilmette’s outlook.

“This project, we just got to imagine how to build it, which [for] other projects we haven’t been able to do,” Will said.

“Because we’re told what to do and how to do it,” Ben added.

As they finished each other’s sentences, they also noted the importance of teamwork. Seconds later, they were back to sanding the hotel’s outer walls.

Toward the bottom of the structure, six rows of wine corks stood stacked on top of one another. Through their research, the boys learned bees prefer to rest in small holes, so they set the corks accordingly.

For many students, this project is their first exposure to power tools. Safety and proper use are part of the lesson, Foley said.

Mom Aricha Drury said she jumped on the opportunity to volunteer because of the nature of the project: hands-on problem solving that encourages kids to build.

The message is especially pertinent for girls, she said, because society doesn’t always promote power tools are for both boys and girls. It’s a model Drury exemplifies at home for her daughter, Savienne, she said.

In class, the girls “were a little hesitant with the drill press, and I was like, ‘Come on over, dive in,’” Drury said.

Aricha Drury, far right, works with her daughter, Savienne, and friends on their insect hotel. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

They also placed bamboo, pinecones, hay and wooden blocks into their compartmented hotel to provide different resting places for various insects.

Foley said bees, ladybugs and beetles were among the top targeted tenants.

Local businesses donated much of the bark, wood and larger materials, Foley said. Moms, dads and grandparents also contributed their time.

The educational aspect of this project reaches beyond the Prospect St. school, too.

In a few weeks, Foley and Guilmette will truck the hotels to various spots around town. Maple Street Park, Cascade Park, Fleming’s schoolyard, two community gardens and two retirement homes are on the list.

Each hotel will feature an attached QR code that community members can scan to learn more about the project and challenges the insects face, per the students’ research.

Next spring, Foley said Vt. Fish & Wildlife plans to follow-up and track the project’s effectiveness. A few weeks ago, the department’s education coordinator Ali Thomas visited the class to talk about insects.

Part of the project’s enrichment is its STEAM foundation, Foley said. Kids indulge in arts, science, engineering and math all in one. They’re simultaneously learning how to use fractions and how a diminishing bee population affects crop control.

“And they just want to keep coming back and doing more,” she said.

“They ask me every day if they can do it,” Guilmette added. But because of the ample preparation and cleanup time involved, the work is restricted to once a week. Friday, Nov. 3 is the last work session.

Thankfully, Guilmette has another idea or two up his sleeve. Recently, he said the school’s music teacher approached him about building instruments. Students will start out designing them and will then gather household items to construct xylophones, wood guitars and maybe even a PVC pipe saxophone.

“Whenever you do a project like this — we call it project-based learning — there’s a reason for it, and it’s not just arbitrary,” Foley said. “You need to know the math, you need to be able to measure, do the science, do the writing [and] the research, because there is an end result that is meaningful.”