Fifth-graders explore ice, earth, oceans and space during visit to Geosciences

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Researcher Don Voigt may not have been up close and personal with a penguin, but as a member of the Penn State team that does research in the Antarctic every year, he has been able to record the cold-loving birds frolicking on the ice.

“I’ve never shaken hands with a penguin,” Voigt acknowledged, when asked about his encounters by one of the fifth-graders on campus this past week for the Department of Geosciences’ annual “Shake, Rattle & Rocks.”

Voigt’s lesson, “From Penn State to the Poles,” was one stop for the State College Area School District students, who learned about oceans, space, earthquakes and microbes. Now in its 14th year, the Department of Geosciences’ “Shake, Rattle & Rocks” ran over three days to accommodate all the fifth-grade classes — although this year’s frigid weather put a kink in the schedules. The goal is to give students hands-on experiences being earth scientists.

The lesson by Voigt, who is part of the Penn State Ice and Climate Exploration Team, and geosciences graduate student Nate Stevens, included learning about the geography of Antarctica, where the thickest ice is 4.8 kilometers deep and the coldest temperature on record is 129 degrees below 0. Also part of the session were a look at how ice sheets behave, a hands-on lesson in how ice sheets and the earth’s mantle interact and a chance to check out a 40,000-year-old ice core drilled from deep below — 3,000 meters down in West Antarctica.

“I’m always amazed at how sharp they are,” Voigt said of the students. “They pick up things they haven’t learned in class.”

Tim Bralower, professor of geosciences and event organizer, said the aim of the carefully designed hands-on activities in classrooms and labs is to give students an idea of what faculty and students in the department do every day.

“We hope that this type of experiential learning adds greatly to students’ education in their classrooms,” said Bralower, “and that it will give them a stronger appreciation of the types of issues that earth scientists work hard to investigate — water, climate change, natural hazards and the viability of life on our planet.”

Bralower said organizers hope to expand the event to other school districts in the near future.

Monica Wagner, a teacher at Easterly Parkway, said that in fifth grade, science lessons start with environmental science and move into talking about the animal kingdom, starting with one-celled organisms. She said “Shake, Rattle & Rocks” is a great way to see scientists’ work and it fits with what students are learning.

“It ties in perfectly with what they’re doing,” she said. “We always enjoy coming to this.”

Last Updated January 10, 2014