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Monday, November 11, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Students teach students science

Hands-on activities, exhibits highlight fair

At the family science night at Jefferson Elementary School, Derek Chaves, 5, top, and his brother Kevin, 4, learn about how water moves. Whitworth University students hosted the program on April 29, which focused on sustainability and environmental and human systems. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
At the family science night at Jefferson Elementary School, Derek Chaves, 5, top, and his brother Kevin, 4, learn about how water moves. Whitworth University students hosted the program on April 29, which focused on sustainability and environmental and human systems. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Students, parents and teachers were met by a rather unusual sight when they walked into Jefferson Elementary School the evening of April 29.

Right there in the hallway, a cow eye was being dissected, to the delight of squirming kids who couldn’t get close enough to the action, and to the disgust of most parents who were lined up against the wall, refusing to look.

The science fair was put on by Whitworth University students in assistant professor Kathryn Picanco’s elementary science methods class, and it was the third one of its kind.

“My students come up with the interactive exhibits, put them together and run them at the science fair,” Picanco said.

Fifteen Whitworth students were busy running interactive exhibits in the Jefferson gym. Many exhibits had a sustainability theme or focused on other environmental issues.

At one exhibit, a plastic box full of red wigglers – that’s little red worms – were chewing their way food scraps. Kids learned, among many other worm facts, that there are 2,700 different kinds of earthworms, before they left with stickers proclaiming them “certified wormologists.”

The West Valley Outdoor Learning Center had been part of planning the science fair, and Outdoor Learning Center educator Andrea Smoley was at the fair with a patient little saw-whet owl named Squeakers balanced on her arm.

Most of the kids wanted to pet Squeakers, but Smoley recommended a hands-off approach.

“He’s little, but he can bite pretty hard,” Smoley said, and Squeakers immediately gave her a little pinch.

Jefferson students had plenty of questions:

Can he fly?

“No, Squeakers can’t fly; he’s missing a wing. That’s why he lives with us at the Outdoor Learning Center,” said Smoley.

Is he a baby?

“No, he’s full-grown. He doesn’t get any bigger,” said Smoley. Squeakers could fit inside a coffee mug.

Does he normally live around here?

“Yes, saw-whet owls are very common here,” Smoley said. “They live in little holes in the trees.”

How can he eat a whole mouse?

“He tears it up in little pieces,” Smoley said.

Another favorite at Smoley’s table was the mounted skunk.

Daring kids took turns smelling his rump without any reaction other than laughter.

Smoley said later that she liked being part of an open fair where the children go from exhibit to exhibit.

“That’s much more fun than when I’m alone and it’s just me talking,” Smoley said.

At another exhibit, a vegetable oil mixture was used to demonstrate what happens when oil gets on feathers. The same mixture was also dropped on water, in a little basin, so Jefferson students could take turns cleaning up the tiny oil spill.

Working their way through different materials such as a paper towel, a natural sponge and a piece of cotton, the kids got a good idea of how difficult it is to clean up a real oil spill.

Several interactive exhibits were about water – the difference between salt and fresh water, and why fish live better in clean, clear water than in “lake sludge and goo.”

The idea to have her students do a science fair was Picanco’s.

“These students are returning adults who come back to finish their degree or get a certificate,” said Picanco. “Before we took the fair out to local schools, my students brought in their own families to do the different exhibits.”

The only part of the fair Picanco’s students weren’t in charge of were the dissections; local volunteer physicians and optometrists take care of those.

“We hope to continue to do this – even if we change the format a little bit,” Picanco said. “It’s a great way for my students to get experience, and the kids really like it.”

Reach Pia Hallenberg Christensen at (509) 459-5427 or piah@spokesman.com.

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