What does mathematics have to do with chickens?

Katrin Gerboth

At around the same time, Anna Fleischhauer, a pupil in class 11 who was planning to write her year’s project on the topic of “Factory farming and its alternatives”, joined up with them and took on the preparatory work for the project. Species appropriate poultry keeping is strictly controlled by Demeter regulations. The size of the coop, with enough space for free movement, perches, and a hatchery for 50 chickens was calculated by her in advance of the project.

In order to allow the pupils and their teacher to calculate the amount of material that they would need in their mathematics class, Dietrich Pax from the Gärtnerhof built a model of the chicken coop. Through this they were able to obtain an impression of the object in advance and were able to use and extend their knowledge of length and area calculations, as well as calculating the number of slats, beams and tiles they would need.

“This project was something very special both for me and the class!”, said class teacher Iris Fleischhauer. What better way is there to make the difference between an area and a space, between a metre and a centimetre, between a decimal and a whole number comprehensible than through a practical example?

“There’s no better teacher than life itself. By doing something yourself, you are able to see if the results are correct or incorrect,” recalls the teacher. In practice, the result of a calculation could be a plank of wood that doesn’t fit because it’s too short; or it could mean a lot of repeated, exhausting sawing with a hacksaw because the plank is a bit too long. Then you suddenly find that there are too few brackets because you confused multiplication and addition. “There is no better way to learn how to do maths,” adds Fleischhauer.

How many chickens fit on a perch?

A short time later, Dietrich Pax received the list of materials needed and construction could begin. How many chickens will be able to live together in the coop? Should all the coop’s perches be at the same height, or at increasing heights so that the chickens highest in the pecking order can sit higher up? Have all the legal requirements for organic chicken farming been met? How fairly are we treating the livestock? What can we do to ensure that the chickens are being kept appropriately and are happy?

All participants in the project were preoccupied with these issues. Over the last twenty-five years, Dietrich Pax has established his business working in close cooperation with the school. His main concerns are horticulture, the keeping of animals, and demonstrating the normality of ecological farming. For a number of years Pax was the chairman of Demeter in Bavaria and worked as a lobbyist for ecological agriculture. Now he’s only working on a “small scale”. Be it keeping endangered livestock breeds, shaping the landscape through grazing, searching for a meaningful alternative to factory farming, or the cultivation of non-hybrid variants of vegetables – he now looks for new approaches to these issues at the level of the individual enterprise and kick starts projects with them. “Education and ecological agriculture are the only models that will be able to support our planet into the future,” of that Dietrich Pax is convinced.

How to saw without waste

The pupils worked together in small groups, alternating in which group they worked. They constructed the basic frame from timber beams. The beams had to be measured to the correct length and then cut using a hand-saw. However, not only did the length of the beams have to be measured correctly but the sawed edges had to be at a right angle as well. Further beams were then placed on the coop’s basic frame and fastened with brackets.

“The question of how to saw without creating too much waste was one to which the pupils had to pay some attention,” says Dietrich Pax. A mezzanine was constructed, which would later function as the floor of the coop. After that they started on the construction of the walls: frames needed to be constructed, ledges had to be installed, wafer board had to be fitted, insulation had to added, and the exterior had to be clad with tongue and groove planking.

While one group was working on the construction, the others were continuing their work in the classroom. They worked on solving problems concerning the chicken coop and the keeping of the chickens, such as “how much will the chickens eat each day?”

New heroes

The pupils’ motivation was extraordinary. So extraordinary, in fact, that almost every day after the lesson had officially ended most of them put in voluntary “overtime”. “We know just how demanding it is to motivate children to think along and for themselves. However, when their work became the deciding factor as to whether the chicks, which were getting increasingly larger, would have a new place to live, then as a teacher I was able to lie back and simply observe how the work itself became the best motivator for them,” the class’ teacher says, looking back.

At first it wasn’t so easy for the pupils to imagine how the pile of timber would become a complete and finished chicken coop: where is the entrance? What, so small? Disbelieving stares. The explanation: it has to be like that so that a hawk won’t be able to get in. After they realised just what went where in the coop, they didn’t hold back.

The children got increasingly better at organising their work. Every child found the job that best suited them. They boys could play at being the heroes for the girls and they could finally show them just “what they could do”. It was no longer just about who was a good thinker. Everyone, from the person who could successfully saw straight through the thick beam to the person who could finally manage to screw in that one reluctant screw with the cordless screwdriver into the wall had their moment to shine and be the hero.

“I was delighted when one morning a pupil quietly came up to me and placed on the table in front of me their plans for a solar powered door-opening system that they had come up with themselves. And it even worked!” Iris Fleischhauer explains. However, in the end they decided on a radio-controlled system.

The highlight came when the ridge beam was fixed in place. This was celebrated with a round of lemonade in the topping out ceremony. After a little more work, fifty chickens were able to move into the new chicken villa in late summer. The pupils were proud of their work and now see chickens with different eyes.

Gärtnerhof Callenberg has set itself the goal of keeping 300 chickens from a variety of breeds without killing the male chicks. This means that many more eggs and a lot more meat sourced from happy chickens will be able to be sold in the future.

About the Author: Katrin Gerborth is a senior staff member of the Demeter Gärtnerhof Callenberg farm