Science Festival: Environmental Detective Fun!

As Malcolm X fifth graders exited the auditorium, there was a chorus of “Thank you” and “I want to be an environmentalist now!” directed to the facilitator from Lawrence Hall of Science who had led the entire grade through an Environmental Mystery Science Festival funded by a Schools Fund Strategic Impact Grant. He smiled as he replied, “You’re welcome, and remember to reuse, reduce, and recycle!”

The outpouring of gratitude probably resulted from how interactive and engaging the scientific investigation was. Students weren’t told facts, but instead, were given a mystery to solve. Fish and other wildlife were dying in a fictional town and there were many “suspects”: the nearby cattle ranch, toy factory, deforestation, and residents. Like real detectives, students discovered and recorded evidence in stages by conducting different tests, such as measuring the acidity or pH level, chlorine level, and phosphate levels from a water sample from the different rivers in the town.

Students tried to solve the origin of the water contamination mystery by pouring 10 mL of water into various areas of the small model of the town to see which site was draining into the pond. They also examined photographs of the pond from 10 years ago vs. present day to tally the number of fish-eating birds observed. They even tested for erosion in the soil by seeing how much sediment was in different water samples and which ones were inundated with sediments, making it an uninhabitable environment for the fish.

During the debrief at the end of the game, students cited possible factors that could be leading to the death of the wildlife in the town: high chlorine levels, pH imbalances, fertilizer contamination, acid rain, and car oil leakage. This hands-on game represented how complex environmental issues are, from climate change to ocean pollution. As Debra Hill, the 5th grade science teacher stated, “We had a discussion about environmental problems the earth is currently facing, and how they are multi-faceted, and therefore require collaboration among many parties to address.”

Hearing the wave of positive feedback from the exiting 5th graders, it was evident that students felt excited and empowered to use their detective skills and their creativity to find solutions to complex environmental issues. It was uplifting to see the next generation of problem solvers eager to solve the world’s challenges.

Thanks to a generous Schools Fund donor, the Lawrence Hall of Science will be bringing a Science Festival to every Berkeley elementary school this year.