of a Vernal Pool
the March/April 2000 issue (vol. 13, Issue 4) of Connect,
a publication of Synergy
make the best life-science labs. I have known this since my own
childhood explorations into the woods and ponds near my home. I
have since watched the invaluable learning that takes place when
children spend time freely exploring the natural world around them,
seeking answers to their own questions, exploring, and discovering,
while at the same time developing new questions to be answered
yet another day.
As a fifth-grade
teacher, I was aware of how valuable it would be for my students
to have this kind of experience as part of their science learning.
After considering the idea for a while, I realized that a seasonal
pond (vernal pool) near the school where I teach would make the
perfect "natural classroom." I applied for several grants to get
financial support for such a project, and within a few months I
had $3,500 in grant money, an outline for studying the pool, and
the excitement and enthusiasm to get it started. My participation
in the Institute for Inquiry Learning Group provided the peer support
that was so helpful during this time.
the project in an inquiry-based way. I began by introducing several "starting
activities in the classroom so my students could begin exploring
the distinct properties of water. As they worked, the children became
familiar with the process skills needed to do scientific investigations:
observing, questioning, predicting, recording data, and communicating.
I encouraged questioning by setting up a "Water" question board in
the classroom. After each investigation, students would reflect in
their journals and then share their findings with the class. During
this time, students were asked to think of questions they might still
have about their investigations. At any time, they could ask questions
and/or write their questions down on index cards. All questions were
read aloud and then posted on the question board.
After many of
these water investigations, we narrowed our questions down to the
best investigable questions. Students selected the question that
interested them most, and then got together with peers who were
interested in the same question. With their partners, they designed
tests, wrote up materials lists, investigated, created ways of
recording information, shared what they discovered and, through
the process of their own investigations, came up with more questions
to be investigated. This was the approach we took throughout our
year-long study of the vernal pool. It served as a model of how
to do our investigations.
our "outdoor lab"
When my students
began studying the vernal pool, their first investigation was guided
only by this open-ended direction: "Learn all you can about the
by getting the tools and materials they needed, such as turkey
basters, tubs, nets, and magnifying glasses. Each child also had
a clipboard for recording information. From this initial investigation,
questions about the pool's ecosystem began to emerge.
The pool became
our outdoor lab. We never went without a purpose or an inquiry
to investigate. Each trip (which lasted between one and one-and-a-half
hours) encouraged more questions and more inquiry investigations.
We kept an ongoing "Vernal Pool" question board in the classroom.
Since the pool
is seasonal, it fills with the winter rains between December and
May. The rest of the year, from June until December, it's just
a dry indentation in the ground. Although we made few trips out
to the pool during this dry period, we did go out in November to
learn about the native plant life with a docent from the California
Native Plant Society. I wanted the students to see the area before
it filled with water so they could better appreciate the natural
changes that occurred when it became a viable pool.
I was amazed
at how quickly the project took flight. My vision became theirs,
moving from a teacher-initiated project to a student-generated
/ student-guided project with me as facilitator. My students' enthusiasm
and motivation propelled a naturally spiraling process. They asked
questions that led to research and investigation. This process
generated more questions, which created more enthusiasm and more
investigation. By mid-February, the project was in motion and fueled
by the students' energy and inquiries.
Back to the
I found that
many of the questions initiated outside the classroom could be
answered through in-class investigations. At one point, for instance,
the students became fascinated by how small insects known as water
striders, or caddis flies, could walk across the pool's surface.
This generated questions around the concept of surface tension.
As a result, I found many ways for my students to explore and develop
their own understanding of the mysteries around the concept of
surface tension in the classroom.
studies also took us to unexpected places outside the classroom.
For example, we took several field trips to local water-treatment
and sewage plants. These experiences stimulated questions around
water purification. Once again, I was able to help students understand
the issues of the seriousness of water pollution and the difficult
task of purifying water by doing a variety of investigations in
In the classroom,
we talked about what was needed to sustain life in the vernal pool
and then created a microcosm of the pool within a 10-gallon glass
tank. We collected pond water, algae, a variety of aquatic plant
life and insects, egg sacs, and the tadpoles of frogs, toads, and
California newts. Students took turns observing the in-class pool
and reporting observations and changes to members of the class.
environment was also important in stimulating observation and investigation.
For example, one group watching the tank noticed a caddis fly burrowing
into a newt egg sac and eating the developing embryos. Of course,
this disturbed the class, and they began to wonder why this was
happening, especially since they had assumed that aquatic insects
were not meat eaters. One hypothesis was that the food source for
these insects was so scarce in our artificial environment that
the caddis flies were being forced to become carnivores in order
to survive. Another possibility, of course, was that these aquatic
insects really were carnivores. Suddenly, we had a new investigation
to pursue. The class decided that the best way to find out was
to go out to the pool and observe these insects in their natural
environment, which is exactly what we did.
Because of the
enormity of the vernal pool project and my commitments to the grants,
it was important for me to continually examine the skills and curricular
content I needed to teach in fifth grade, and ways in which to
integrate these into our pool investigations. It easily fell into
I am convinced
that watershed studies can be a perfect thematic umbrella. In order
for my students to follow the process we designed for pool investigations,
they had to use skills from many curricular areas. In addition
to science process skills, they learned research skills, communication
skills, reading and writing, presentation design and public speaking
skills, as well as math skills when measuring things like rate
of flow and changes in the pool's depth. We also made many connections
to events in United States history and to waterways.
By the end of
the year, my students had became stewards of this local vernal
pool habitat. They understood human impact on an ecosystem, both
positive and negative, and the meaning of interdependency, the
important role each living thing has in maintaining balance in
a delicate environment. They learned the importance of being aware,
active citizens and advocates for the preservation of their local
Beth Kraft is
a 5th grade teacher at Lu Sutton School, Novato, California.
to post this issue of Connect granted by Synergy
Learning International, Inc.
San Francisco, CA 94123