Student teams pull together to investigate a community health enigma--and make curricular connections in the process
When Irene Runnels landed a school Suburban in the mud on the banks of the Red River, her boss responded with a grin and shrug of his shoulders.
Some administrators might try to reign in Runnels, a learning disabilities teacher whose escapades have occasionally overextended Cache (Okla.) Public Schools. Superintendent Randy Batt, however, recognizes the power of her enthusiasm. After all, the high-school teacher has netted her district more than $500,000 in grants.
Runnels' most recent grantwriting endeavor, Wonderful H2O, is a collaborative project that pairs fourth and fifth graders with high school students to find out what's in the local water.
The community has followed the project, and not just because it's a great learning experience. Recently, several students and bus drivers in the small community have been diagnosed with the same type of leukemia. The community suspected an environmental connection. Instead of allowing students to live in fear, Runnels and her daughter, fifth-grade teacher Robin Muse, transformed the situation into a learning experience.
A Natural Fit
The indefatigable Runnels is constantly on the prowl for new grants. When the Environmental Protection Agency issued a request for proposals based on local resource issues, the mother-daughter team decided water testing might allay student fears. They won a $5,000 grant, and Wonderful H2O was underway.
A prime example of educational innovation in action, the project is simultaneously interdisciplinary, inquiry-based, high-tech and meaningful.
It began on a high-tech note with Runnels, Muse and a fourth-grade teacher completing training in GLOBE, a worldwide network where students report local environmental observations to scientists through the Internet. The trio learned about hydrology protocols and water testing for phosphate, nitrogen, oxygenation, transparency and pH.
After mastering the new hydrology gear, they returned to their classrooms to practice the protocols with students. Fourth- and fifth-grade students constructed water molecules, calculated weekly water use, read stories about rivers and painted a mural of a river.
The interdisciplinary focus helped nine- and 10-year-olds master some fairly high-level material. Muse notes, "Students went from thinking the project was hard to looking forward to our trips to the river and testing the water. This type of experience makes more sense to students and helps them remember what they're learning." Cache Intermediate School Principal Roger Arter adds, "The project has been a great learning experience."
The meat of the project occurred on Cache Creek, where high school special education students led teams of younger students in water testing. Toolkits were used to test the water for reporting to GLOBE scientists.
Students also visually surveyed the local watershed to identify links between the water and surrounding land. For example, in the spring they realized that the presence of frog eggs, water spiders and algae indicated that the creek was indeed healthy, an observation confirmed by their test results.
Hands-on experiences weren't limited to Cache Creek. The young scientists rolled up their sleeves and became cartographic sculptors, courtesy of an ordinary sand table. They constructed river channels and simulated erosion by running water through those pretend waterways.
Runnels and Muse realize there are infinite ways to reach students. In addition to tapping into students' interest in the natural environment, Wonderful H2O exploits their fascination with technology via a digital video documentary. Here, the teaching team is adopting a hands-off stance.
Students videotaped their experiences throughout the year and used iMac iMovie stations to select music and transitions to complement the action. The video documentary has been submitted to the EPA as a final report and will be shared with other schools for project replication.
The video was completed during the project's grand finale--a weeklong summer Water Wonders Camp, where the fourth- and fifth-graders were re-immersed in the element. They reviewed properties of water, pollution and conservation and made a final visit to Cache Creek for water testing.
Filled with curricular connections, the Wonderful H2O project ties into state and district science standards. According to Muse, however, the most appropriate link is actually outside of the science curriculum. "Character education is one of our district goals. This project required so much teamwork and [it] really strengthened students' leadership skills."
"Field experience is good for students," Arter says. "It's a big responsibility, and they've lived up to it."
It's not easy to innovate. It costs money and takes commitment. Initially, Runnels and Muse envisioned Wonderful H2O as a $15,000 project. The EPA declined Runnels' first proposal, but indicated it could fund a portion of the project if the school could purchase an iMac to complete the video documentary itself. Undeterred, Runnels scrambled and secured permission to use funds from other grants to buy the computer.
After facing down funders, securing commitments from the district and the town was a walk in the park. Despite Runnels' predilection for mud, Batt agreed to fund transportation for six trips to Cache Creek. Local landowners eagerly allowed students to use their land as testing sites. Of course, there was a caveat; they wanted to know the results immediately.
County extension agents shared their expertise with students and were featured as guest speakers throughout the year. Finally, the local newspaper followed the project and published the students' progress and the final results: the suspected carcinogen methyl tertiary buthyl ether was not discovered in Cache Creek.
The entire town heaved a sigh of relief when the good news was announced. Fifth-grade student Leslie Brookshire can't immediately pinpoint the high point of the project. Finally, she says, "The best part was that we found our water was good. We used real scientific toolkits. We had class outside by the water."
Recent grad Michael Vunk does not waver. "It gave me a chance to be a leader and reinforced my desire to be a scientist." DA
Lisa Fratt is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.