Teacher inquiry: From rain drop to faucet

Water inquirers welcome New England weather

elena sketchingThunderstorms on the morning of July 1 invigorated an intrepid group of elementary school teachers meeting at the MacLeish Field Station to launch the 2015-16 Water Inquiry Teacher Group. The Water Inquiry Group is a professional learning community working to improve children’s understanding of water as a natural and cultural resource.

Participating teachers from Jackson Street, Leeds, and Smith College Campus School welcomed the downpour as an auspicious prelude to water investigations facilitated by Carol Berner and Al Rudnitsky (Department of Education and Child Study) with Reid Bertone-Johnson (Landscape Studies and Field Station Manager). In the spirit of Archibald MacLeish’s poem New England Weather, the “changing sky” provided participants with warm sun in time for a picnic lunch.

Water as a medium for inquiry 

In his introduction to the workshop and inquiry group, Professor Al Rudnitsky emphasized the goal of helping children become the kinds of thinkers they need to be in order to function effectively in the 21st century. Connecting inquiry group approaches with the Next Generation Science Standards, Rudnitsky highlighted NGSS scientific and engineering practices including: “Asking questions, constructing explanations, and planning and carrying out investigations.”
He framed a question to guide the group’s collaborative research: How do we design learning environments where this kind of thinking can take place?

rsz_brainstormingTeachers responded with examples of  “setting up conditions kids need to let their curiosity blossom,” and “getting kids to think deeply about something they thought they knew well.” Bob Hepner, Art Teacher at Smith Campus School, concluded “I wish every subject were like water. Kids like everything about it and it’s probably the most ubiquitous and magical substance around us.”

Rain cloud to faucet? Mapping group ideas

Where does Northampton drinking water come from? Giggles punctuated quiet concentration as teachers embarked on the day’s water inquiry, sketching the journey from rain to faucet.

1 sketching

Knowledge gaps became clear when the group co-constructed a diagram of shared understanding, skillfully rendered by Elena Betke-Brunswick (Smith M.A.T. ’15).  Mapping water’s path revealed shared understandings and questions. In almost all of the drawings rain fell from clouds in the upper left corner of the page, flowed down mountains in little streams, then gathered in a reservoir before entering a tangle of question marks leading to faucets.

“How do reservoirs work? What changes in a water treatment plant? Where do pumps happen? Who determines flow?” The group recorded questions about sources of drinking water and different ideas about how watersheds work: “Does some of it come from Vermont? From the Connecticut River? From groundwater? What’s the role of farms and irrigation? Does it get dirty along the way?”


Where does rain go from here? What is water doing?

3 woods al

After examining topographical maps, teachers set out in teams to investigate what happens when rain flows downhill (northeast) from the field station. Summer Interns Laura Krok-Horton (Smith ’18) and Liz Nagy (Smith ’18) documented teachers’ responses to the question: What is water doing?

“Dripping on leaves, soaking into the ground, making sounds, rising from mountains (how?), running into the stream (why?), running along ground paths, pooling atop mushrooms, making a slippery environment, making trees fall over, nourishing plants, aiding with decomposition, mixing with soil, flowing through rocks, collecting in pools.”
Reflecting back on the group diagram, participants wondered what portion of the water goes to the reservoir — anticipating the next stage in the investigation.

Insider view of water treatment:  “We make the flow”  

4 plant with dunn

Visiting the reservoirs and water treatment plant raised new questions and revealed surprising discoveries about land ownership, infrastructure, and supply and demand (Coca Cola #1 and Smith #2!).  Andrew Dunn, Chief Plant Operator, gave a lively tour that helped teachers visualize what happens to water between reservoirs and faucets.  One big surprise was that water distribution is gravity-fed. As Dunn explained, “We make the flow.”

Reflecting on Learning

6 final sketch

“Add trees!” was the first revision that teachers made to the diagram of water’s journey from rain cloud to faucet. They were eager to learn more about the relationship between forests and drinking water and wondered how to model and help children discover this connection. “Erase the pumps,” was another important modification to reflect the discovery that drinking water and fire hydrants are gravity-fed. Everyone agreed “the Connecticut River is too low” to flow into Northampton’s drinking water supply, so the river was moved to the bottom of the drawing.

In addition to new findings about water, teachers reflected on the impact of engaging in “multi-layered inquiry” over the course of the day. Katy Butler (First Grade Teacher at Jackson Street School) observed, “I liked being a learner myself. Starting with a question and tracing new learning is something I want to do more of with my students.” Stephanie Flinker (Alternative Learning Program Teacher at Jackson Street) said the day “reaffirmed that good questions lead to more questions.” The group seemed excited to collaborate over the coming year in designing learning environments to spark and sustain water inquiry with their students.


For questions, comments or more information about the Water Inquiry Teacher Group please contact Carol Berner cberner@smith.edu. We welcome visitors to drop in on professional development sessions during the school year (schedule will be posted on Water Inquiry Blog).

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