Science Journeys
Middle School Students Learn Beyond Classroom Doors

By W. Cabell Guy

Orginally appeared in December 2011

There are exciting things happening in the local middle school science classes. More and more frequently, the assignments our students work on take them out of the classrooms and task them to apply their knowledge to real-life situations. By forming partnerships with local organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Triple C Camp and the Rivanna River Conservation Society, our students are able to do hands-on fieldwork that is truly exciting.

The products our students are creating are the culmination of a semesters worth of work, not just a days. Gone are the days of simple field trips and independent lab assignments. Our students now do science lessons that can take them away from the school building for days at a time. Our students get to learn by doing.

As an adult, I find myself jealous about the science work that our students are involved with because they put my knowledge to shame. Most of my knowledge about life science has long since been stored somewhere in the back of my mind alongside how to write using cursive. Until a few months ago, I thought the best thing about an oyster was a side of lime and hot sauce. Turns out oysters are a keystone species that have a profound effect on our waterways here in Virginia. Oysters eat by filtering water  up to 50 gallons a day  which, in turn, helps to keep our water clean. Somehow, I lost that knowledge along the way and only had it rekindled by talking with several sixth grade students.

Sutherland Middle School has been involved with expeditionary learning, a style of teaching that involves critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Expeditionary learning is often product-centered, allowing students to research and generate projects for an audience outside of the classroom walls. This year, sixth grade students at Sutherland did an in depth watershed unit with their teachers, Jeff Schwalm and Bryan Anderson.

A gallery walk kicked off the watershed unit showcasing animal skins, articles, macro invertebrate specimens, water chemical testing equipment and various maps and photographs. This really got the kids excited about learning and showed them that all of the land in this area is part of the watershed and should be treated with respect.

Students partnered with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to explore the local watershed at Chris Greene Lake. Over the course of several days, all sixth grade students learned canoeing skills while paddling on the lake. They learned how to check the turbidity of the water using a Secchi Disc. They were able to observe nature from a canoe; a perspective most were enjoying for the first time. During the trip, their teacher took numerous pictures of the different organisms they encountered on the lake, while walking on the nature trail or in Jacobs Run. The students got to get their hands dirty by seine netting in the feeder streams or beside the lake. They looked for different larvae, nymphs and other water-based life that indicate the health of a stream.

Two guides from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Allen Thompson and Phillip McKnight, helped lead the journey while teaching the students about the importance of their actions on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Other experts were brought in as the two classes diverged into different topics. Jeff Schwalms students went into Jacobs Run to assess the health of the stream by capturing and counting macro invertebrates.

On a separate trip to Powell Creek, students assessed the health of the stream based on three criteria: stream habitat, chemistry and macro invertebrates. As a final product of the watershed unit, students were each responsible for creating a page in a field guidebook to Powell Creek. Students researched a macro invertebrate, a type of chemical testing, or part of the stream habitat and wrote a page of information with pictures for the class book. The book was donated to the library for future students to use when studying local watersheds.

Bryan Anderson had his students create personal PowerPoints and a Field Guide to Chris Greene Lake. The students worked for several weeks to create these products. At the end of the school year, Mr. Andersons classes presented their information to parents through a science fair. Sixth grade students, Seth Liyanage, Ishpreet Singh and Katie Wildman, were all part of the parent program. They shared their findings from the various research experiments they had done in class and talked to parents about their contributions to the field guide. Throughout the room, the students work was on display for the parents to see. They showcased research on the chestnut blight, Passenger Pigeons, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and mercury contamination as well as famous conservationists. Clearly, the unit sparked an interest. Both Seth and Ishpreet now have plans to work on a larger field guide for all of the National Parks. Their enthusiasm to work on a project such as this, especially during the summer when most students focus on everything except school, shows that this type of educational experience is rewarding.

What is great about programs like the one at Sutherland is that they allow the students to start applying what they have learned in the classroom to real-life situations. Living in Charlottesville makes this much easier due to the fact that we have access to the Rivanna River and its tributaries. Understanding how humans interact with the watershed system is a key component of the sixth grade science curriculum. This continues in seventh grade life science, where students spend the majority of the year learning how organisms interact and depend on one another. Having direct access to the different water systems here in Charlottesville means that our students can get their hands dirty by digging into the mud of a stream, pull out dragon fly larvae, and then explain what this stage of development means for an invertebrate. This is something one could experience sitting in a classroom, but there is something magical about getting knee-deep in water, digging your hands down into the mud and finding life. These trips allow our students to experience the curriculum in a way that is both new and exciting while preserving their childhood enthusiasm.

Albemarles middle schools are starting to create more experiences like this for the students by working with different organizations here in Charlottesville. Seventh grade students at Jack Jouett Middle School worked with the Rivanna Conservation Society to learn about the importance of aquatic species in the river. Ms. Robbi Savage, the Executive Director for the RCS, worked with the science teachers at Jouett to create a seventh grade trip that focused on teaching students the correct ways to monitor river and lake pH levels. The students spent the day with two RCS volunteers doing biotic and abiotic testing on the Rivanna and learning how the quality of the local water can be seen by looking at the diversity of the bugs and fish that are native to our waterways.

At Burley Middle School, science teacher Michael Barber worked with Triple C Camp to provide a remarkable watershed experience for the sixth grade. Over the course of two trips, the sixth graders participated in Triple Cs Green Adventure Project, focusing on threats to the local watershed systems. Activities included canoeing on Walnut Creek Lake, testing the water chemistry, plankton races, macro invertebrate investigation and discussion about water pollution. This alone was a fantastic trip, but Burley continued their journey by taking a group of forty sixth-grade students to The Mountain Institute at Spruce Knob in West Virginia where they spent three nights outdoors. Students learned skills in wilderness survival and land navigation while exploring the national forest.

Sutherland Middle School has led science expeditions at all three grade levels this year ranging from exploring the effects of the Deep Water Horizon accident to studying which type of wind turbine blades work best. At the eighth grade level, students focused on the question, Is there a best way to clean up an aquatic oil spill? Collaboration between math and science classes helped students study the various techniques used to clean up the Gulf Coast oil spill, focusing on research procedures and data analysis to draw their conclusions. Ms. Beth Evans, the eighth grade science teacher at Sutherland, presented a hypothetical local disaster: an oil tanker accident on Interstate 64 near the Ragged Mountain Reservoir. She asked students to apply their understanding of cleanup procedures to design the most effective way to clean up an oil spill here in Albemarle County.

These programs offer our students a chance to explore their local environments and learn more about humans effect on nature. By creating expeditions that take students out of the classroom, they are better able to understand the natural processes that affect the local watershed system. They can study the biotic and abiotic components of our waterways in and around Charlottesville. They can learn how the organisms within a specific ecosystem are dependent on one another while creating a hypothesis using scientific reasoning and logic. These skills come straight from the Virginia Standards of Learning, but by applying the theoretical knowledge to examples close to home, our students walk away with a more rewarding and more memorable experience.

The added benefit is that it allows kids to be kids. They can remember the correct uses for a Secchi Disc because they remember that a classmate almost lost the disk into the lake. What made the lesson unforgettable to Ishpreet, Seth and Katie was the fact that the unit incorporated real-life examples rather than just textbook facts. They could talk about what larvae was common and which was hard to find. At the same time, they could also share stories about who almost flipped their canoe and about the pet frog they found and tried to convince Mr. Anderson to take back to class. Their excitement was palpable. I learned a great deal talking to these students and found myself returning to my own childhood enthusiasm. I am envious of the science work these students are doing while in middle school and was thrilled that they were able to share that anticipation which comes with learning something new.

Cabell Guy is a school counselor in Albemarle County.

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