Angling For Knowledge

Prospecting for critters with the zeal of pioneers panning for gold in 1850s California, the fifth grade immersed itself — literally — in Brubaker Run creek to explore in real life the science they’ve studied in the classroom.

Although for some students, zeal was tempered with a dollop of wariness.

Standing in the middle of the creek with water flowing just an inch below the top of her galoshes, Emily P. voiced a concern. “I don’t want any leeches on me!” she said.

“That’s never happened!” came Caroline Badri’s instant response. “You’ll be fine.”

The assistant head of Lower School joined T.J. O’Gorman, Meg Reed, Sue LeFevre and Science Department Chairwoman Laura Trout on the interdisciplinary field trip to Rader Park, where students tested the water quality of the stream, used their surroundings to inspire poetry, and considered our collective interdependence with a kind of role-playing game that cast the students as property developers.

To gauge the water quality, students took samples and measured a number of variables: the concentration of dissolved oxygen, nitrates and phosphates, the water’s temperature and turbidity, and the macroinvertebrate population. The latter is especially important because these organisms, such as crayfish, can only survive in a narrow range of water conditions and thus their presence or absence serves as a bellwether for the quality of the stream.

O’Gorman led the “Sum of Parts” exercise, in which students were given riverfront property and $20 million to spend developing it. For example, one entrepreneurial fifth-grader decked out his spread with a saw mill and lumber yard. After everyone’s developed their property, they discover that their parcels adjoin one another. As neighbors along “one big river, if they build something especially extravagant, they find they’re unwittingly polluting the river for everyone downstream,” O’Gorman said.

Students in Reed’s group sat in the sunshine, working on “writing inspired by nature,” she explained. This included a partner exercise called Human Camera, in which one student takes 5 seconds to observe a scene, then uses that mental snapshot to recreate in free verse or haiku the image he or she saw to constellate that picture in the partner’s mind.

As Reed was explaining this, Peachy L. ran up to share her poem with Reed, but issued a caveat first. “It doesn’t have any personification,” Peachy said apologetically.

“That doesn’t matter,” said Reed. “I’d love to hear anything you’ve written.”

“It’s wonderful for kids to get outside like this,” Badri said.

Ag Lab 2016

 

When Liz Peters’ first grade class heard they were going to be farmers for a day, there came from the back of trailer a small cry, “Yay!”

Perhaps a more accurate description of the kids’ new occupation would have been farmer-scientist-lawyers, because the students in the Mobile Ag Science Lab’s “Feast Like A Bug” experiment got down to work answering an accusatory question: “Which insects are guilty?”

“Guilty” in this case meant guilty of eating plant leaves and wrecking farmers’ crops, so to proceed with their prosecution, the kids had to learn some insect anatomy and fun, polysyllabic words, like “piercing proboscis.” Using clothespins as stand-ins for mandibles and pipettes for piercing proboscises, the kids took turns trying to use their bug mouths to eat leaves and seeds. Finally the kids had their men (or more precisely their bugs) and their verdicts. Aphids: Guilty. Grasshoppers: Guilty. Ladybugs: Not Guilty.

This was the third year that Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s Mobile Agriculture Science Education Lab has come to Country Day, enriching the Lower School curriculum with experiments such as “Pigment Power,” in which the third grade learned how to use pH to discover which fruit drinks are the healthiest, to “Super Slurpers,” where the fifth grade surveyed four different powders before devising and testing a hypothesis about which would hold the most water.

Bringing the Ag Lab to Country Day was the idea of Lower School Science Coordinator and Science Department Chairwoman Laura Trout. “Most students wouldn’t think of farming as science, but there is a lot that goes into planting, tending, harvesting and distributing our food. The Ag Lab provides a perspective on science that we don’t usually address in our science curriculum. It gives students a better understanding of one of Pennsylvania’s largest industries.

“And it’s just plain fun going to science class in a big trailer,” Trout said.

Instilling an Environmental Ethic

In between the fun of bird bingo and the bubble extravaganza, Green School Coordinator Barbara Bromley tried to convey a deeper message during Take A Child Outside Week.

“The goal is to instill an individual and institutional environmental ethic,” she said.

“The Green Initiative at LCDS is about raising kids’ awareness of environmental issues and ensuring they know that there are actions they can take, that there’s something they can do to change it,” said Bromley, who implemented Take A Child Outside Week at Country Day. “And while it’s true that the things they can do as individuals may be small in the sense of global climatic impact, their actions are still significant with respect to leading by example and raising awareness and helping start a movement.”

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Awareness-raising is always easier with a little fun mixed in though.

Intrepid preschool explorers set off on scavenger hunts hand-in-hand with Upper School buddies. Rob Trubiano’s students brought their curriculum into the real world, using Fibonacci numbers and pine cones and pineapples to see the intersection of mathematics and nature. And sharp-eared sixth graders listened to a score of avian calls to fill their cards and claim ultimate victory in bird bingo.

Bromley said, “I couldn’t do this without the many parents who volunteer and the teachers who supported it by taking their students outside.”

“One of the aims of Take A Child Outside Week is community-building,” Bromley said. “The Lower School kids especially look forward to the week, and if they and their parents can find joy outside and learning through art, then we’re doing something right.”

Perhaps the best example of community building during the week is the All-School Picnic, when everyone is outside and students from all divisions eat lunch and play games together.

“Studying climate change is depressing,” Bromley continued. “TACO is one way to learn about the environment while accentuating the positive. But regardless of how we present it, we have to teach students about the environment or else we’re doing them, us and the planet a disservice.

“We’re ahead of the game here at Country Day because our parents are aware and educating their children, so the fundamentals are there. We have to have kids love nature so they’ll take care of it. That’s what Take A Child Outside Week is all about,” Bromley said.

Earth Day 2015

Earth Day played out more like Earth Week at LCDS, beginning Monday morning with a sixth-grade bake sale that raised more than $300 for Live Monarch, a group dedicated to milkweed habitat restoration.

“We wanted to help the butterfly, and Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed. Guerilla gardening is a great way to turn unused or underused land, like vacant lots or highway medians, into a new habitat for them. And making milkweed seed bombs just sounded like fun,” said Green School Coordinator and kindly revolutionary Barbara Bromley.

 

Students from most grades had the chance to head out into the garden and build some eco-ordnance at the seed-bomb station. After working up an appetite, they could munch on an array of local, organic snacks, just one of the ideas the Upper School Green Committee came up with to help folks get into the Earth Day spirit. In addition to receiving a seed packet of milkweed, butterfly tattoos and organic gummies, Lower Schoolers made tissue paper flowers and monarchs and are reading a book called “The Curious Gardener.” 

Alum Amy McCrae Kessler spoke to the Upper School about leaving her steady, but unfulfilling job as a lawyer to start her own urban composting business in Philadelphia. In addition to devising several Earth Day-specific activities for students to do in the garden, Lower School Science Coordinator Laura Trout also invited a guest lecturer to talk to the Lower and Middle schools about climate change.

“I think everything came together in a very nice, low-key way,” Bromley said.