Penn GSE Helps West Philadelphia School Host Environmental Festival

June 11, 2014 – The classroom bustled with excitement as kindergarten students holding construction paper posters stepped forward for their moment in the spotlight.  Standing in a row in front of their guests, a class of first-graders, the children proudly shared the knowledge they had gained through weeks of studying live hermit crabs. As they taught the older students, the kindergarteners pointed to their drawings and discoveries on the posters, among them “Hermit crabs wash up like people,” and “Living things can grow.”

The lesson exemplified the philosophy of the Environmental Festival held this May at West Philadelphia’s Henry C. Lea School in collaboration with Penn GSE. In the words of Penn GSE Instructor NancyLee Bergey, organizer of the event, “Everybody has something to teach, and everybody has something to learn.” Each class of students both taught and learned from another class, and participated in a variety of activities designed to bring science to life.

Held for the first time at the Lea School this year after five years at the recently closed Wilson School, the annual festival is part of Penn GSE’s deep involvement with West Philadelphia public schools through programs that support the University’s commitment to local impact.

“The festival’s goals are to celebrate science learning, extend and expand students’ learning and excitement, and help students see the relationship between science and their everyday surroundings in an urban environment,” said Bergey. By all accounts, the festival achieved these aims.

With funding from Verizon Foundation, Bergey coordinated the efforts of more than 75 Penn and GSE students who worked alongside Lea School teachers throughout the year to provide exciting, meaningful science instruction in Lea classrooms. The festival was the culmination of this work—a day of student-taught lessons and interactive science activities for the school’s approximately five hundred students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Penn GSE master’s student Avery Finch devised the hermit crab unit that the kindergarteners shared.  “Integrating several subject areas, but with a focus on literacy and science, the unit built on an earlier study of living things and the work of Jane Goodall, then asked students to embark on their own scientific inquiry into live hermit crabs in the classroom,” she said. Finch worked full-time at the Lea School from January to May as part of her student teaching requirement for GSE’s Teacher Education Program and plans to become an elementary-school teacher.

All the preparation paid off on the day of the festival, according to teachers at the school. Lea School teacher Latoya Landfair reported that her fifth-grade students benefited from building models of solar houses and teaching fourth graders how solar energy works. “It was important that my students engaged as scientists and engaged in the opportunity to discover and investigate independently,” said Landfair. “It was a fulfilling educational experience for everyone involved, as it is every year.”

The students in teacher Lindsey Coyne’s fifth-grade class taught fourth graders about ecosystems, using a terrarium to demonstrate how the water cycle works. “The festival was a huge success,” said Coyne. “My students were exposed to the many different aspects of science. I feel that my students left school that day not only excited, but inspired.”

In addition to helping classes prepare special lessons for the event, Bergey and students set up a “museum” in the school’s library. They offered stations for planting seeds, examining specimens through microscopes, using an iPad app to identify tree leaves, creating electrical currents to power fans or lights, watching objects freeze in liquid nitrogen, and more.

Penn students who planned and staffed the museum remarked on the children’s energy and enthusiasm. Grace Kim, one of many students in NancyLee Bergey’s undergraduate education course EDUC421 who contributed to the event, ran a museum station about the microscopic world. “We were fortunate to have some live samples that could be directly observed through the microscopes,” said Kim. “One student who did not expect to see ‘crazily moving little creatures’ fell backwards after looking at the magnified bacteria!’”

Penn Science Across Ages (PSAA), a Penn undergraduate student organization dedicated to improving science education in the Philadelphia public school system, provided many student volunteers to staff the festival. Undergraduate Shira Redlich, co-president of PSAA, observed, “It was amazing to see the smiles on the students’ faces as they walked around the museum and chose activities they found interesting. I saw a student jump in excitement as he watched a robot move its legs and other students smile as they posed wearing a full beekeeper’s uniform.”

Beyond producing smiles and excitement, the hope is that the festival had a lasting impact on students’ learning and confidence. PSAA co-president Steve Scarfone notes, “The real benefit—the real goal of the festival—is for the Lea students to feel empowered and knowledgeable. It’s a rare occurrence for an elementary school student to be in charge of a room, but that is exactly the experience that all the students get during the festival when they teach the science that they have learned to another class. I’m extremely happy to be part of an event that gives students that experience.”