A field trip to Seneca Caverns has given sixth graders a chance to apply their scientific inquiry and earth science skills in solving a mystery.
During the first four weeks of school, the district’s 77 sixth-graders have studied the scientific process: how experiments work, what careful inquiry looks like, and how to both think and write like scientists.
“Then we go on this field trip. And when they come back, they are immersed in trying to solve a crime scene, the death of Ms. Van Pebbles,” said Jonathon Siebenaler, the sixth-grade science teacher. (The students were supposed to meet her at the Caverns.).
Among the clues they encountered in their classroom the next morning after the field trip: the theft of Ms. Van Pebbles’ rock collection, soil samples, a mysterious mineral collection, footprints, fingerprints, handwriting samples, voice mails, hair samples, Kool-Aid, and a handwritten letter.
“What’s different is that instead of using specific variables as in a traditional experiment, the variables are not controlled,” he said. “There are specific steps you follow in a scientific experiment but this case does not have those. It’s a different kind of science. It's more of an investigation. So it helps students see how science can have different formats.”
It’s also a way to make what can be a dry topic – earth science – more engaging, he added.
In the weeks ahead, students will analyze crime-scene clues (or evidence) to rule in or out one of three suspects. The fun of solving the mystery also presents an opportunity to meet a state requirement for sixth-grade science: identifying minerals such as Quartz and Amethyst.
Ultimately, the students’ scientific conclusions will be presented in an evidence-based case report, Mr. Siebenaler said. That type of report differs from a traditional scientific paper, in that it uses more of a narrative approach and equal parts theory and experience.
“We’re approaching the assignment as if we are forensic scientists,” said sixth-grader Anushka Agarwal. “Being led to different clues and ruling out distractions.”
They will reuse these skills throughout the year as they move into the future science units, including life and physical sciences.
In addition to exploring the caverns (about 60 miles east of Ottawa Hills in Bellevue, Ohio), students did an activity where they used Karst maps of Ohio’s counties to determine which had the most sinkholes, caverns, and underground streams (the winner: Adams County). “They were using real data and working on their geography skills,” Mr. Siebenaler said.
One of the main attractions of the trip is venturing 110 feet into the cavern to see how the region’s prevalent limestone caused caverns to form. But this year, the season’s additional rainfall left them unable to descend the final 15 feet. As a bonus, though, this year’s students were able to touch the higher-than-usual “Ole Mist’ry River,” the flowing stream that is part of the vast ground-water system which underlies the region around Bellevue.
“The water was very cool and clean but I expected it to be more brown from the rocks,” added Anushka.
Students also mined for minerals and gemstones in the “sluice” and visited the gift shop to take home some interesting finds to remember the day. Mr. Siebenaler started the trip four years ago, the same year he became the sixth grade science teacher. The trip – with its combination of earth science and scientific methods – has been part of the fall experience for sixth graders ever since.
Thanks to the other six-grade teachers Jennifer Griffin, Cheri Palko, and Andrea Williamson as well as the many parent volunteers who drove.