Environmental engineering, elementary style

Jan. 25, 2014 @ 04:09 PM

OAK HILL — Twenty 10-year-old environmental engineers at Joe Toler-Oak Hill Elementary School spent two days recently testing how effectively different kinds of filters remove pollutants from water.

The environmental engineers were students in Jean Fitzgerald’s third-grade class. The activity was part of the Engineering is Elementary curriculum.

Fitzgerald led a discussion about how water gets polluted. The lesson was based on a story the children had read about involving a girl in India.

“You remember how Salila found a turtle in polluted water?” she asked. The story traced efforts of the young girl to design a filter to help create a pollution-free habitat for her turtle.

The class began to discuss ways of making sure water is safe.

“What criteria would you use to tell if the water is OK?” Fitzgerald asked. Answers came from the class.

“The water is clear.”

“No particles.”


Larry Thomas, an Oxford city engineer, had met with the class on the previous day to provide a foundation for their efforts.

“We talked about pollution from smoke stacks and in water and littering,” he said. “I told them what we do at the wastewater plant.”

With that background, the students began an activity to test different kinds of filters.

Students worked in groups of two or three. Each group had two bottles of strange looking liquids. Some were filled with a milky liquid, others with dark-colored liquids. Some of the bottles showed sediment at the bottom. The students’ task was to test the effectiveness of three filtering systems: a coffee filter, a section of screen and a combination of sand and gravel.

To test how rapidly the water ran through the three kinds of filters, the team of Samantha Huff and Shaniya Downey took turns pouring water through one of the filters and recording the length of time it took to collect a quarter of a cup of the liquid. The water ran through the screen quickly, taking only 11 seconds to collect a quarter cup. At the other extreme, the filtering action of sand and gravel slowed the flow of a quarter cup to 58 seconds.

The students then checked to see how well their filters removed particles from the water to help them in designing their own filters.

“They’re learning teamwork as well as science,” said Brynn Pendrak, coordinator of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics program.

A major purpose of the program is to teach collaboration and communication and foster creativity, she said.

Some of the students had trouble carrying out the operation and received additional help from Fitzgerald or Pendrak.

“There’s nothing wrong with failure,” Pendrak said. “They learn from failure.”

The Engineering is Elementary curriculum was developed by the Boston Museum of Science and has been extensively field tested, with positive outcomes for students with different backgrounds and characteristics.

It was implemented in Joe Toler-Oak Hill this year and made available to students living in any part of the county. Chris Ham, director of managed choice for Granville County Schools, said of the 211 children in the program, 21 live in other attendance areas.

Students from kindergarten through the fifth grade are participating in the program at Joe Toler-Oak Hill. The program there is the start of a continuous emphasis on technology that will extend through 12th grade.

“One collateral effect is it’s forcing us to export the program so when these students go into the sixth grade the experience can continue in middle school,” said Tim Farley, Granville’s superintendent.

It will also be broadened geographically.

“The school board approved expanding the program next year to Butner-Stem Elementary School,” Ham said.

That will make the program more readily available to students in the southern part of the county.

Jessica Carrington and her husband have two children in the program. Kate is a second-grader and Jack is a fourth-grader.

“It’s been great,” Jessica Carrington said. “They’ve always enjoyed school. They enjoy building things. They have two great teachers.”

Not all comments on the program were so positive. Brandon and Nicole Hall have two daughters in the program, one in second grade and one in fifth grade. “It’s a good program, but I don’t think it was well thought out,” Nicole said. “They took away music and replaced it with technology.”

Brandon said, “We have two different kids who learn in different ways. Our youngest daughter likes to think things out. Our other daughter could care less how things work. She’s much more into music and art. It’s probably good, if the kids are getting the building blocks. I think they should get the basics first, then implement the technology program.”

After meeting with the third-graders to discuss Oxford’s wastewater treatment plant, Thomas said, “They’re a neat bunch of kids.”

He was also impressed with the program.

“They were dealing with stuff I didn’t get to until I was in college,” he said.


Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.