Science You Can See

From the sweet to the squirmy, science comes to life outside the classroom for Mt. Lebanon elementary students.

Thanks to a gift from the Lincoln PTA, Lincoln students get a chance to dig deep into the science behind agriculture. Third graders from every school in the district get closer to nature, thanks to a gift of time and resources from the Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s Mobile Ag Science Lab is a 40-foot trailer equipped with 12 work stations set up for hands-on experiments. Posters line the walls, suggesting careers in agriculture: “If you are interested in PLANTS, you may want to be an AGRONOMIST or BOTANIST. If you are interested in INVENTING, you may want to be a BIOLOGICAL or AGRICULTURAL ENGINEER.”

The posters are there for a reason. According a study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Purdue University, we can expect an average of almost 60,000 high-skilled job openings in agriculture in the United States over the next five years, with only about 35,000 graduates to
fill them.

Students vote on which drink sample is highest in sugar and which is highest in fruit juice.

The Ag Lab curriculum is tailored for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The lab spent a week parked in front of Lincoln near the end of the school year.

Mark Kline, a retired teacher from the North Hills School District, is one of about 20 teachers who staff the six labs that travel the state.

“Our busiest times are right at the beginning and right at the end of the school years,” says Kline. Sometimes I’ll be on the road for six weeks at a stretch.”

The lab’s not cheap—a week at Lincoln cost $2,500, with the PTA picking up the tab—but Lincoln principal Ron Kitsko believes it’s worth the cost.

“I saw the lab at Jefferson and I knew we had to get it here,” he says. This is the third year the lab has come to Lincoln.

“We had great feedback from the staff about the lessons and the facilitator,” says Kitsko. “We already have them booked for 2020!”

The lab has lesson plans for 30 experiments, each geared for either an elementary or middle school audience. Teachers can choose which of the experiments they want their students to do.

Lincoln fifth graders were tasked with determining which of four grape flavored beverages contained the most juice.

Kline began the class with a plug for healthy living—“What should you be eating more of? Fruits and vegetables, right? What’s a good way to get them into your system?’

Not through injection, as one kid suggested, and not in the sneaky way one kid’s mom has of baking broccoli into brownies—which was met with a universal “eeugh,” even from the adults. The easiest route is in liquid form.

Students at Lincoln School use the scientific method to arrive at conclusions in the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s Mobile Ag Science Lab.

Students used scientific methods of observation, smell and taste to determine which of four samples was highest in sugar and which contained the most fruit juice. They discussed and documented.

“That’s bitter.”

“Bitter means less sugar.”

“Whoa! That’s high in sugar!”

“That’s REAL high in sugar!”

After tasting and ranking the samples, the last step was simply to vote on which ones they thought tasted best. Straight-up grape juice came in last, with only three votes out of 24. Grape juice cocktail, 25 percent juice with 22 grams of added sugar, did slightly better with four votes. The big winners? Flat grape soda and grape Kool-Aid, with nine and eight votes respectively, no juice to be found and all kinds of added sugar.

Kline used the findings to circle back to the healthy-eating theme.

“Maybe make some better choices. And check the labels,” he said.

The Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy’s School in the Park has been a Mt. Lebanon institution since 1985. Third-graders from each of Mt. Lebanon’s seven elementary schools spend a half day in Bird Park learning about nature in five stations scattered around the park—birds, invertebrates, forest, stream and field edge.

Conservancy members Angie Phares and Sarah Levinthal are the coordinators of the program. This is Phares’ seventh year as a volunteer. Levinthal’s experience goes back even further: She went through the program when she was in third grade.

Volunteers from the Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy and the high school Advanced Placement Environmental Geoscience class work together to present School in the Park.

“I don’t remember a lot about it,” she admits, “but I do remember it was a fun day in the park.”

And it stuck—Levinthal is using her volunteer hours as a coordinator and instructor to count toward her certification as a master naturalist, someone who teaches, prepares natural science curriculums and environmental interpretation and stewardship programs.

Third-grade students from every Mt. Lebanon school spend a spring morning or afternoon in Bird Park as part of the Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy’s School in the Park program, which has been a Mt. Lebanon mainstay since 1985.

Phares moved here about eight years ago, and got involved with the Nature Conservancy almost immediately, volunteering to trim invasive species in the parks.

Preparation for School in the Park begins at the start of the school year, Phares says. Lining up volunteers, getting the word out to parents, securing the necessary police clearances for working with children, all
takes time.

“Things really start to ramp up in February and March,” she says, as the volunteers begin training and also lay down layers of mulch to make the trails more walkable and also to ensure that the students (and brand-new instructors) don’t get lost going from one station to the next.

Including conservancy members and students from the high school’s Advanced Placement Environmental Geoscience program, more than 100 volunteers run the program, which this year reached 383 third-graders.

One of the most impactful pieces of information the third-graders take away with them, says five-year instructor M.B. Trivilino, is a list of discarded items found in the park and how long it takes each of them to decompose.

Cigarette butts can hang around for anywhere from two to five years; a plastic bottle can take 20 to 30 years to decompose; aluminum cans can take 10 times that long. Polystyrene cups remain on the ground indefinitely.

“Some of the kids have trouble pronouncing ‘indefinitely,’” says Trivilino, “but they all know what it means to have something around that long.”

Photos by Linda Hackett and John Schisler