By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
On a sunny, mid-September morning, the principal of the National Inventors Hall of Fame School and some of the sixth-grade teachers drove to a marsh in Copley Township, just over the Akron city limits.
Principal Traci Buckner and the teachers turned onto an unpaved lane off Wright Road to the 150-acre vegetable muck farm established in 1921 by Joseph Panzner, a German immigrant.
Panzner's grandsons, Steve and Jerry Panzner, who still lived on the land, had spent the last decade transforming the property into the Panzner Wetland Wildlife Reserve through a federal program to save endangered wetlands.
They had succeeded in restoring 96 acres into wetlands that looked like they would have about 10,000 years ago, at the end of the ice age.
Here was where the teachers would stage their first big project, and they were as excited about the possibilities as they hoped their students would be.
Since spring, the teachers had been designing the project with professors from the University of Akron and a consultant from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a premier math and science high school in Aurora that
specializes in problem-centered learning.
First, they had to decide what they wanted the students to learn through the experience of solving the problem that would meet state benchmarks for their grades.
Ohio fifth-graders are expected to know how ecosystems work, and sixth-graders should know the basics of animal and plant cells.
The University of Akron — one of the middle school's main partners — already was working on a real-world problem: how to restore a wetland area in the Bath Nature Preserve that had been drained for agricultural use in the 1920s.
What if a UA biologist, Jessica Hopkins, asked the school to help her determine the signs of a healthy wetland?
The UA restoration project at the Bath Nature Preserve was too new and fragile to withstand hordes of eager fifth- and sixth-graders, but the university did know about another, fully restored wetland nearby: the Panzner property.
The project would allow the teachers to hit as many state standards as they could in one place — not just science, but math, social studies and language arts as well.
Steve Panzner met the delegation from the school and gave a tour of the property, first showing the teachers a restored beaver pond, which he thought would make a good science station for the kids.
The middle school's program specialist, Beth Bugner, who was in charge of making sure the teachers had everything they needed for the project, asked him to repeat what he'd told her earlier about the kinds of things his family had dug up over the years. Some of it dated back to the end of the ice age, when mastodons, giant beavers and other massive, now extinct, animals once roamed.
''When you dig a ditch, you dig it very deep,'' Panzner said. ''We went to 14 feet and we found a lot of different kinds of bones in that particular field. One of the bones we found was a beaver tooth, approximately a foot long.''
''WHAT!?'' sixth-grade math and science teacher Sam Crews exclaimed. ''The tooth was a foot long?''
''Prehistoric,'' Panzner explained.
''That's awesome!'' Crews said.
That tooth is now in a museum, but the brothers kept the two bone knives they found with it. Humans had been living on this land since people using Clovis point spears had hunted those mastodons. The brothers had dug up samples and dated them by how deep in the ground they were.
''Using that plant life, we determined how we were going to put it back and what it was going to look like,'' Panzner explained to the teachers. ''We knew that 5,000 years ago, that that was a beaver pond and you're looking at what it would have looked like, about 5,000 years ago.''
Then he showed the teachers to a wetlands meadow that was flooded in the spring, but drier toward the end of the year. He had just recently blazed a trail through the undergrowth.
He led them along a freshly crushed path into the meadow of mostly flowering plants, including wool-grass, purple asters, orange and red spotted jewelweed, smartweed, wingstem, various species of goldenrod, wild marigolds and tall, swaying cattails shedding their seeds in bursts of white fluff.
''We've only come less than 100 feet away from the edge, and take a look where our wash house is,'' Panzner said. ''You notice you can only see the roof.''
The principal, Buckner, figured that maybe a quarter of her students, many from inner-city Akron, had ever been to a place like this.
''We need to take them outside around our school first, to practice,'' she said to Bugner.
The fifth-grade teachers, who had been out to the property the previous week, had asked whether there was a field guide, and Panzner said no.
Bugner, who had a background in teaching language arts, seized on an idea: the fifth-graders could create their own kid-friendly guidebook based on their research, which they could give to the Panzners and keep in the school's library.
Panzer was thrilled that he'd have children exploring the property where he grew up.
That was the whole point: Preserve the wetlands and inspire future generations to do the same after they've experienced some of the wonder themselves.
''When I grew up, it was like everyday . . . I went out and found something new,'' he told them. ''I used to come in with a snake in each hand and my grandmother would scream.''
After the other sixth-grade teachers had returned to the school, the principal and Bugner stayed for a guided tour of a small forested hill overlooking the restored beaver pond.
Panzner explained how Algonquin-speaking Indians frequented the wetlands, harvesting edible plants and hunting and fishing in the lake with nets.
''The archaeology students thought this was the coolest thing because it shows just where they would have put the trail to come down in here to hunt and fish and then walk up there and camp,'' Panzner said. ''If we dig into the hill, we find tons of charcoal pits, so we know they were there.''
After circling the beaver pond, they emerged back on the lane. Buckner noticed the Panzner family vegetable garden.
''This is just our little family garden,'' Panzner said. ''It's only an acre and a half.'' They grow peppers, tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, eggplants and leeks.
''Can the kids get to it and see that?'' Buckner asked.
''Sure,'' Panzner said.
''Let's just take a peek,'' the principal whispered.
''Our kids don't see this very often,'' Bugner said.
''My family eats vegetables,'' Panzner said. ''What can I say?''
He yanked a thick orange carrot out of the peaty black soil.
''Oh, wow, look at that carrot. Oh, my gosh.'' the principal said.
Panzner wiped the dirt off and crunched into the carrot.
''Yeah, that's pretty good,'' he said.
They had figured out where to park the buses and where to set up the science stations for all four days.
Now they had to present that problem to the students in a way that gave them just enough information to awaken their curiosity. They needed to set the hook.
John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
AKRON PUBLIC SCHOOLS spent five years designing a $14.5 million math and science middle school where students will learn in ways dramatically different from traditional classrooms. Years of planning, millions of tax dollars and the contributions of practically every significant public and private institution in Akron are riding on the effectiveness of these methods.
Akron Beacon Journal reporter John Higgins spent time with students and teachers as they experienced this new school.
TODAY: Teachers venture into the swamp to develop a lesson plan, and are excited by what they find.
TUESDAY: Teachers sink the hook, engage the students in a mission.