PRINCETON: Witherspoon students get a lesson in inquiry-based discovery

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Science teachers at Princeton’s John Witherspoon Middle School recently took 240 students to the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association for an environmental lesson.

Chase curiosity.
Science teachers at Princeton’s John Witherspoon Middle School recently took this approach to engage about 240 students in environmental science. By teaming up with the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, the lessons became real, immediate and relevant.
The sixth-graders assessed habitat in open fields, dappled forests and in the Stony Brook. They also tested the composition of soil samples, and oxygen levels in various waterways.
“This water has oxygen levels of two parts per million,” said sixth-grader Justin Musyimi who measured water from a pond. “What does that mean? If you had one million tennis balls, two would be oxygen molecules.”
After gathering the data, the students examined their evidence and discussed if a specific fish, tree or crayfish would survive.
Teacher Jacques Bazile said the inquiry-based discovery gives students traction in the school’s ecology unit. The new science standards aren’t looking for just one answer, he said, but answers that are supported by data.
This experience “is taking science and actually applying it,” Bazile said. “We have these concepts and facts and apply them in this open, real-world lab.”
The hands-on approach lead to discussions of biotic and abiotic factors, water chemistry, and the effect of soil composition on plant growth, said Jeff Hoagland, Education Director at the Watershed. He had students take core samples of soil. Next, they compared their samples with the jars filled with clay, silt and organic matter.
Jim Waltman, Executive Director of the Watershed, said the 930-acre reserve provides a living classroom where students can learn scientific practices.
“Students learn best when they are engaged in real world issues, not just memorizing figures from text books.”
For students entering grades 9-12 in the fall who are interested in immersive science education, explore the Watershed Science & Stewardship Academy at https://thewatershed.org/academy/.