Annual program helps elementary students dig into geosciences

A simple experiment with sand, soil and colored liquids gave area fifth graders a firsthand lesson in how soil can help clean up environmental pollution as part of the Department of Geosciences’ annual outreach program, “Shake, Rattle & Rocks.”

“We wanted students to see that topsoil, because of its organic ingredients, can retain some pollutants whereas sand acts more like a sieve,” said Jennifer Zan Williams, research assistant, of the experiment involving red, blue and purple liquids masquerading as “pollutants.”

“Soil is a Filter” was one of seven interactive sessions designed by Geosciences faculty and graduate students to introduce the fifth graders to basic natural science concepts from microbes to plate tectonics. Nearly 600 State College Area School District students participated in the program's sessions.

While some students were conducting the soil-filter experience, others were learning how certain bacteria like to “eat” rocks as part of “Astrobiology: Life at the Extremes.” Dan Jones, a doctoral student, had students observe what happens when sidewalk chalk encounters acid-loving bacteria (it dissolves “just like Alka Seltzer!” exclaimed one of the young geoscientists).

Classes who visited the Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum not only got a three-dimensional glimpse of earthquake locations along tectonic plate boundaries in the Pacific, but they also had a chance to create their own earthquakes by jumping and seeing their seismic waves measured on the museum’s seismometer.

“These activities give students an understanding of the fundamental physics of earthquakes as well as an understanding of how earthquakes provide scientists with data about the Earth’s internal structure,” said Chuck Anderson, visualization and outreach specialist with the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute who led that session.

In “Exploring the Marcellus Shale,” students got a primer on where their energy comes from, the benefits and costs of various energy sources and the leading role that Pennsylvania has played in the development of natural energy sources including coal, oil and natural gas. Students also learned where the first oil well was drilled (Pennsylvania in 1859) and which state has the most anthracite coal deposits (again, Pennsylvania).

“Today was a good introduction to geology for our students,” said Lynn Royse, a teacher at Radio Park Elementary School. “This is a different environment, different experiences, and it’s very visual and hands-on.”

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Last Updated March 21, 2011