Program teaches fifth-graders scientific methods

October 08, 1998

Testing rain waterBy LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

CLEAR SPRING - Donning safety goggles and rubber gloves, Conococheague Elementary School students became scientists Wednesday when they collected and analyzed rainwater samples for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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The program is part of a new study course for Washington County fifth-graders during their three-day stint at Fairview Outdoor School.

Students used high-tech equipment to precisely analyze the quality of the rainwater at the Clear Spring school.

Readings showed that the water contained amounts of chemical compounds so tiny that they were measured in parts per million.

To show how little that is, teacher Pearle Howell mixed red dye with water and then diluted it with more water.


"That is pollution guys. You can't see it," she said.

In addition to making precise measurements, Students took water samples from a nearby creek and tried their hand at more crude scientific methods.

Using eye-droppers, the students added a chemical to the water and watched it turn yellow. The shade of yellow indicated the level of ammonia, a common type of pollution from agriculture, in the water.

The program is pretty tough, incorporating chemistry and other advanced concepts, said Principal Carl Stark.

Teachers are working on ways to make it more age-appropriate while still preparing students for the Maryland School Performance Program, he said.

"I think students need to be challenged and I think we sometimes underestimate what they can do," he said.

The program is funded by a $4,500 environmental grant from the Maryland State Department of Education.

The data collected by the students will help EPA scientists understand the interactions of people, air, land and water on the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

After the students skillfully conducted the experiments, they seemed to liven up during a short walk to the stream, where they had several close encounters with nature.

They discovered the secret of a "touch-me-not" plant, which has seed pods that explode to the touch. Student Shannon Yeargan tried to save some to take home to her brother.

They found an animal carcass and tried to figure out what it once was. Nearby, another student discovered a tiny skull.

"Look at the rodent teeth. I think it's a baby beaver or groundhog," said student Alisha Eberhart.

They located some large yellow fungi, but stayed away from the poison ivy.

They even spotted a water snake and watched it swim downstream.

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