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Nature of learning

By John Published: May 13, 2010
Donia Bland, a sixth grader at the National Inventors Hall of Fame School Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Learning, gets a closer look at a water beetle that was captured in a water sample from a pond in the Panzner Farm Wetlands. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal)

By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer

Two Akron school buses loaded with eager fifth-graders rolled up the long lane onto the Panzner family property just outside Akron on a late September morning, and discharged the young scientists into a cold, steady drizzle.

The kids wore coats, jackets, sweatshirts, knit hats and mittens, but their teachers busily tailored ponchos out of black plastic garbage bags.

The principal of the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, Traci Buckner, had watched the weather reports and decided to brave the rain rather than postpone the big day.

The kids weren't just taking a field trip, they had a mission: determine what makes a healthy wetlands and report their findings to a University of Akron biologist who had asked specifically for their help.

The teachers divided the students into five groups, one for each of the stations they had set up, and tried to keep the notebooks from getting drenched in the steady falling rain.

''You get to work out the bugs on the first day, aren't you guys lucky?'' fifth-grade math and science teacher Jill Holcomb asked.

''I love being in the group that has the guinea pigs,'' said Brennan Powell, an affable blond kid with glasses who seemed perpetually optimistic.

''Do you? Well you are in that group all day,'' Holcomb said.

Holcomb gave the students laminated flip cards with pictures of different plants. They were to find as many as they could in the overgrown meadow.

''Now remember those pictures you guys sent to me about plants that are in a wetland?'' she asked. ''Well, I put all these pictures together and the names of the plants and you're going to have to see if you find them.''

The kids ventured into the wetland meadow and collected samples of smartweed, wingstem, goldenrod, wool-grass

and cattails, most of them casting the seeds of next year's meadow.

Steve Panzner met the group after they returned from the meadow and helped them identify some of the plants.

Then they made their way over to the marsh, which was wetter than the meadow, mostly tall sedges (a three-sided species of grass), and hard and soft reeds.

They followed a beaten-down path into the marsh and the ground beneath them — a tangled, twisted mat of roots and stems — felt spongy.

''Oh, by the way, everybody do this for me, please? Everybody jump up,'' Panzner said.

They jumped in unison and felt the earth tremble under their feet like a trampoline, eliciting a chorus of ''cool!''

''Feel the ground shake?'' Panzner asked. ''That's because there's so much water underneath.''

Bug observation

The art teacher, Julienne Hogarth, and Amanda Boyd, a fifth-grade language arts and social studies teacher, were waiting for them at the next station: bug observation.

Their task at this station was to sketch what they captured and observed, then identify what they'd found back in the classroom. So what should they be observing?

''We talked about this in science: color, shape, line, texture. We're talking about art stuff, OK, this is all about observing,'' Hogarth said.

''And in language arts class this week, I know that you guys talked about adjectives. Those are describer words,'' Boyd added. ''You know, a bright red bug is different than a red bug. A bright orange bug is different than a pumpkin orange bug, right? So you're looking for those. You're looking for round, you're looking for oval, you're looking for slimy.''

Draped in a blue poncho with about a half dozen pencils tucked under her ball cap by her ear, Boyd probed the hedge and prodded the students to join in the hunt. Boyd called out for a jar and scooped a pile of dark moist earth into her palms.

She encouraged Suhad Althamra to grab a bug out of the dirt.

''Get it Suhad, reach in and pick it out of there,'' Boyd said.

Suhad scooped it up with the lip of the jar without having to actually touch it.

''Cool,'' Boyd said. ''Do you see any others?''

''I'm afraid,'' Suhad said.

''Don't be afraid, it will bite me first,'' Boyd said.

Suhad ventured into the dark earth with her fingers, but recoiled when she touched a slug.

Meanwhile, further down the hedge, Hogarth asked Jake Bilich to stick his long-handled net deeper into the bushes.

Jake half-heartedly obliged.

''Oh, Jacob's not into this,'' Hogarth said.

''I'm cold, I'm wet, I'm tired and I'm hungry,'' Jake said, emphasizing each describer word for dramatic effect.

''We're all cold, wet, tired and hungry. But we're here to learn. We're adventurers and explorers,'' Hogarth said cheerfully.

Suddenly, Jayshawn Sutton yelled to Hogarth to freeze.

''Look! Look! Don't step! Don't step!'' Jayshawn cried.

There at her feet was a damp, pinky-sized grasshopper.

''Oh, get it, get it,'' Hogarth said. ''Oh, that is a jackpot.''

With Jake's help, they managed to transfer the grasshopper from the net to a jar.

''We found a grasshopper!'' Jake yelled with newfound enthusiasm.

The other kids gathered around. Now it was time to observe and sketch.

Brennan shouted that he'd seen a bug fly onto Boyd's blue poncho.

''Look how aware you guys are of bugs all of a sudden, that's great,'' Hogarth said. ''Oh, Jacob is not so cold, tired and cranky now is he?''

Nature's treasures

During lunch, Panzner told the students about life at the end of the ice age and showed the kids stone net weights, clam shells, bone knives, arrowheads, clovis spear points and other artifacts that the Panzners had dug up over the years.

After lunch, Brennan's group met fifth-grade math and science teacher Brenda Leighton at the edge of a lake to pan for leeches, snails, riffle beetles, dragonfly nymphs and other spineless critters they could find in the muck.

''You all told us back at school that if we're going to have a healthy ecosystem, what we need are things living in the water,'' Leighton said. ''So we set this station up to find out what's living in the water.''

Their phys ed teacher, Aaron Merz, who had found many ways to integrate math and science into his gym and health classes, ran the final station by the beaver pond where they measured the temperature and acidity of the soil and water with digital probes.

Because of the rainfall, everyone's reading turned out to be about the same. They'd have to hope for a sunny day to get more accurate readings.

''All right, nice job ladies and gentlemen,'' Merz said. ''You're done and we're going to get cleaned up.''

Brennan, as enthusiastic as ever, had mud all over his pants.

''And Brennan? Un-believe-able. Unbelievable how dirty you are,'' Merz said.

Special surprise

Meanwhile, the principal and the program specialist coordinating the project, Beth Bugner, were working on one last surprise.

Bugner had told the principal about a student who a few days earlier had expressed disbelief that carrots came out of the ground before they were packaged for the produce aisle.

Panzner gladly yielded the family vegetable patch for an impromptu harvest.

The fifth-graders clutched handfuls of green stems and fronds and yanked the overgrown orange roots from the dark peat soil.

Diane Pancoe, a fifth-grade language arts and social studies teacher, captured the scene on her video camera, calling out to students who eagerly presented their carrots for her inspection.

''What do you guys think?'' she asked some girls.

''Awesome and I love carrots,'' Brynne Burgy shouted, jumping up and down. ''And it's huge. It's humongous!''

''You know what?'' Pancoe asked. ''You could mass those out on the triple-beam balance. I wonder what the mass of one of those carrots is?''

''Yeah! We could try mine!'' Brynne offered.

The cold, wet, tired fifth-graders boarded the buses with their muddy carrots and returned to school where their principal had arranged hot cocoa to be served in the cafeteria.

They had never planned it, but visiting the garden proved to be one of the kids' most popular experiences.

The next three days were sunny and the drier weather encouraged the bees, so there was some drama with stings and fear of stings, but also carefree moments for butterfly chasing.

Planting the seed

The sixth-graders had different stations to visit, including microscopes set up in the barn to observe animal and plant cells; a fish tank filled with pond water and organisms to count; a nature hike up into a forested hillside where Indians once camped; and more plant observation in the wetlands meadow and reed marsh.

They got to hold slimy tadpoles at sixth-grade science teacher Christine Justiss' station.

She showed them one tadpole that had been killed earlier by a predator beetle and was in the process of being devoured by its fellow cannibalistic tadpoles.

Hogarth's sixth-grade station gave students a wider, less brutal view of nature.

She wanted the students to sketch their surroundings, capturing a wide vision of the wetlands by the lake first, then focusing on particular plants for more detailed drawings.

She turned her attention to Sam George, who was observing a cattail and shading it in.

''Should I draw the sun in the corner, on the side of it?'' he asked.

''No, because you're going to give us that information by shading this side darker, so we'll know the sun is hitting it,'' she said.

The sun was warm on their faces and they could hear the rasp of insects and the songs of chickadees.

''What does that feel like?'' he wondered aloud, observing the cattail.

''You can touch it,'' she said.

White fuzz exploded off one side of the cattail in little bursts.

''Why is it doing that do you think?'' she asked. ''What do you think? What happens to plants as they start to dry up?''

''It's shedding,'' Sam said.

''What's it shedding, though?'' she asked.

''Watch, what am I doing right now?'' she said as she pinched off some fuzz and rubbed it between her fingers, flinging white poofs into the breeze.

Sam couldn't quite grasp what she was driving at.

''It's the seeds,'' she said warmly, smiling.

''The seeds?'' Sam said.

''That's how they reproduce,'' she said. ''It's planting itself.''

''Ohhh,'' he said.

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or



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