"Making Science Real" Summer Camp
County Schools and Cacapon Institute received a grant from the WV Department of
Education to conduct a summer science camp at the East Hardy Early and Middle
School site near Baker. The goal of this program was to help children in grades
4-8 learn to excel in science.
This no-cost program began on June 30, and ended on July 24.
Classes were kept small to maximize the benefits for participants.
The underlying rationale for this program is best described in the following quote from Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences: "It would be fine if all Americans knew about plate tectonics, or the way that cells divide. But it is much more important that they understand what science is (and what it is not) and how its central values - such as honesty, generosity, and respect for the ideas of others-have made possible the rationalization of human experience that underlies all human progress. [He emphasized the importance of] teaching science as an inquiry-based process."
The first week of MSR focused on fundamental science skills. Each day was structured so the students would carry out a complete science project - from making observations, creating a testable hypothesis, conducting an experiment, tabulating results, coming to a conclusion, and revisiting the hypothesis. Each of the following three weeks had a theme - such as ecology, geology or biology.
After a minimum of preliminaries, including a review of the scientific method, students plunged right into "science as an inquiry-based process." Fifteen minutes into the first day, sitting on rocks by the small stream that flows through the East Hardy School property, they were asked to imagine that they were scientists working for the WV Division of Natural Resources. And then they were presented with a problem. A landowner had called to complain of a fish kill on the creek that flowed through his property and they had to find out why. The group quickly developed a long list of possible reasons for a fish kill and decided to test one likely hypothesis: The fish died due to low dissolved oxygen. They then set out to test their hypothesis by collecting water samples in a number of locations in the stream and testing them for dissolved oxygen levels.
Finding that dissolved oxygen levels were high enough to support the most sensitive fish, they had to come up with an alternate hypothesis. So, on Day 2, they tested the water to see if chlorine, or pesticides, or toxic dissolved aluminum might be the problem. Nope, they didn't show up either. So, on Day 3, they decided to see if the fish still swimming in the stream looked healthy, or if they had ulcers, fungal disease, or other signs of stress indicating a continuing problem. First you have to catch some fish, so they were introduced to the fine art of seining (picture to right).
The fish were mostly disease free, so Day 4 called for a simulated experiment to explore the idea that maybe a combination of factors contributed to the fish death. CI's Peter Maille created one of his infamous "critters in an envelope" experiments. Four table-tops became four aquariums, and the students had to closely observe a bunch of foam fish, and tabulate how many had missing fins, or holes, or were a certain color. One table was the control - a "tank" with water having acceptable levels of dissolved oxygen (DO) and neutral pH. Another tank had fairly low DO, another had somewhat acidic water, and the last had fairly low DO and somewhat acidic water. Another group of kids could have given us the "oh, give me a break look," but we were fortunate to have a bunch who were willing to give it a try. They looked and tabulated carefully, and found that the combination of fairly low DO and somewhat acidic water had a higher proportion of unhealthy or dead fish.
Of course, week one was all just based on an imaginary problem, but it turned out to be a very good way to experience the scientific process. On the very first dissolved oxygen test, the student collecting the water sample dropped the lid to the bottle, and the instructions said you had to have the lid. So the first object lesson was the value of being careful. The next was the value of creative improvisation - because we just couldn't find the lid. So a hand with a rubber glove turned into the lid (we did find the proper lid after a bit). The third lesson in those first few minutes of day 1 was that you have to read instructions for chemical tests carefully or you might waste a bunch of time. As the week went on, they learned other lessons, like the value of perseverance, as on day three when they were trying to catch fish to examine for disease - and the fish didn't want to get caught. They learned that scientists sometimes have to infer the possible presence of one thing by testing another; we weren't able to test for aluminum directly, but knew the underlying chemistry well enough to know that above a certain pH, dissolved aluminum would not be a problem. All week long, they had to hone their skills of observation, and keep their daily journals up-to-date. They were also introduced to the fine art of scientific skepticism, and challenged to list all the reasons why the day's experiment might not have been valid, or might not have been an appropriate way to answer the question. Ultimately, they realized that even if the imaginary problem were real, they might have been in the field too late to find a definitive answer to the question.
Week 1 ended with a stream cleanup, during which we removed a large amount of plastic and some metal from the stream.
Week 2, 3, 4
The skills developed during Week 1 were put to use in student directed projects during each of the following weeks. Each week had a similar approach. During the first day, key terms, concepts, and scientific "tools" were demonstrated or explored. Following this, students would develop their own projects (or group projects), to be done using the available scientific tools over the next several days. Finally, students would present the results of their research to the group.
Week 2 was ecology week. Peter Maille, and Science Teacher Robin Maille continued to emphasize the scientific method as covered in Week 1. This week however, rather than be guided through a daily study from beginning to end, over the course of the week the students developed and carried out a study of their own.
We spent Day 1 getting grounded in a bit of ecology with a discussion of nutrient cycles, energy flows, succession, population, niche, and communities. We then hit the stream to take that first step in the scientific process--making an observation.
For Day 2 the students sifted through the observations and questions they generated during their stream walk, and took the scientific process' second step--they developed research hypotheses. Armed with these hypotheses, we marched over to the library where we gleaned enough information on the topics to write out a short introductory paragraph on the proposed studies, and drafted a preliminary set of study procedures. Lest we spend too much time inside, we then went to the stream and gave our procedures a dry run.
Day 3 was test day. The students' developed tally sheets for their data and conducted their tests. Upon completion, a little celebratory splash in the stream erupted… ...this is a summer camp after all.
Day 4 had the students' analyze their data and make presentations to the group. One study tested the hypothesis that there were more gnats near the river than near the school. The other hypothesized that there were more trees growing adjacent to the river than away from the river.
While these studies might not quite be material for the journal "Nature" both represented successful efforts by the students to use the scientific method to carry through a study. In the process, they explored skills ranging from spelling (Gnat rather than nat), to laying out plots, tallying data, composing graphs, and providing critical reviews of each other's work. …and yes, there were more gnats and trees by the river.
Week 3 was geology week. This week was a bit more "directed" than we had originally planned - simply because mini-projects in geology are hard to come by. Janet Gillies gave the students plenty of intellectual meat to chew on during the first day exploring principles of geology. They learned about the rock cycle, the physics of sediment transport (they all really know the formula "force=mass times acceleration" now - Jan pelted them with marshmallows then offered to pelt them with rocks of a similar size; they declined her offer). They learned how to measure the volume of an irregular object from the story of the ancient Greek who calculated the volume of a king's crown by immersing it in water. And they learned how to take current flow measurements down at the creek in fast, medium and slow waters, collecting data that would prove useful the following day.
Day 2 was an exploration of sediment depositional environments in the stream. Students tested their hypothesis that there would be a larger proportion of larger rocks in slow water than in fast water. To test that hypothesis, they collected sediment samples from the fast, medium and slow waters of the day before, used stacks of sieves to separate the sediment into a number of size fractions (picture at left), then measured the relative volume of each fraction by using the "crown test" mentioned above - immersing the sediment in water and seeing how far the water rose. They found their hypothesis was wrong; the slower waters had a larger proportion of fine sediments, and that the equation "force = mass times acceleration" works - fast water moves larger sediment than slow water. Which led into an entirely different kind of exercise for the following day.
Day 3 found us on a field trip to a nearby highway road cut. The challenge of the day was classic observational field science. Map a portion of the Devonian rocks exposed by construction, identify and sample all the layers within a transect and then later, in the "lab, try to determine the kind of depositional environment would lay down sediments of that size. One group got lucky, had very wide layers, and was able to map out a full 50 foot transect. The other group struggled to go 10 feet, with many layers only a few inches wide. A second stop found us at a fascinating spot with prehistoric wave patterns and fossils preserved in the rippled rocks (see right).
Day 4 was spent exploring (using Play Doh) how those rocks we saw on Day 3 formed and were turned into the folded mountains dominating our landscape (yep, that's the plate tectonics bit that Bruce Alberts [see top] thought it would be fine for folks to know about). Following that we diverged a bit, talking about fossils and then making our own fossil casts using molds and plaster of Paris.
Week 4 was billed as stream biology week, but we decided to open it up and let the kids pick any research topic that could be done with the scientific tools at hand - and we started by giving them a few more tools. Jan Gillies (also known as the Baker Bug Lady) provided a background in insect biology with her fabulous insect collection, and Neil Gillies trained the group in stream assessment techniques using aquatic insects. Given their freedom, the students took full advantage. Two decided to look at relative abundance of bottom dwelling stream creatures in fast and slow moving water, two compared the density of centipedes and millipedes in shady and sunny areas, and one looked at the effects of algae covered rocks and chicken manure (separately) on dissolved oxygen in stream water. Good stuff!
The program ended with a group field trip to visit the museums in Washington DC on July 25.
The East Hardy campus proved to be an ideal site for this program. The classroom facilities provided a good learning environment, but the real treat was the trail through the woods down by the creek (Baker Run) and the stream itself.
Thanks so much to the Energy Express team for sharing the East Hardy school with us, to Head Start for providing transportation, and the Hardy County Schools for providing meals. Thanks to Terry Moore for donating tickets so the kids could watch the IMAX movie at the National Museum of Natural History (The Smithsonian) in Washington DC. Thanks to the WV Department of Education for funding this. Finally, thanks to the kids who surprised us every day with their insights and excellence.