April showers bring… May storm drains?!

Wonder why first graders were peering intently down storm drains in an April downpour? They were figuring out how to rescue ducklings, prompted by the problem-solving story Inquiry, Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings. This spring, Campus School first grade teachers Eva Jaffe and Emma Pascarella piloted the first in a series of interactive science inquiry stories created by Smith student researchers from the Water Inquiry Story Project. Eva Jaffe reflected about the storytelling pedagogy: “It gave their problem-solving work a purpose. Why bother thinking about storm drains? Because we could come up with a way for Inquiry Inc. to save some lost ducklings!”

Where does water go?
When I sat down with a small group of first graders to hear their reactions to the Case of the Missing Ducklings, they were eager to share their ideas. After a picture-walk through the book, they lingered on the final page, still wondering about the pencil that fell down the drain earlier in the story. Where did it go?

  • “To other drains downhill on the Smith campus and neighborhood.”
  • “Maybe to a filter and the ocean.”
  • “I think it goes to a river before the ocean.”
  • “It’s kind of cool that you think about if it might go to a different country.”

Their dialogue captures the spirit of the Water Inquiry project, which works to improve understandings of water as a topic that stimulates curiosity, as well as a medium for inquiry with which to explore the development of ideas. Classroom tools for making thinking visible help students track evolving ideas, including a collaborative diagram exploring: “Where does water come from? Where does it go?” Connecting to a classmate’s idea about rivers, one girl shared excitedly, “I live near the Connecticut River! I fish in it! I went on a long kayak trip all the way down to the ocean and we had to bring a LOT OF STUFF!!.”

Inquiry and collaboration
In the Inquiry, Inc. story series, plucky young characters bring a sense of humor to problem solving, welcoming idea diversity and encouraging imagination. First graders told me their favorite part of the story was when Carlos suggested there might be a “little pirate ship” in the underground pipes. Brainstorming appreciates all ideas, no matter how far-fetched!

When I asked first graders, “why does it help to talk about ideas?” they built on each other’s responses:

  • “You can think about them more to see if they work.”
  • “You may not agree, you talk so you can agree.”
  • “Other people add onto your idea and you can come up with a big idea.”

Ideas into action
For the story’s culminating challenge — to design a better storm drain — students told me they “copied” each other’s ideas; “changed them a lot;” and came up with their own “new” ideas. Design innovations included levers to sweep off leaves, latticework to keep ducklings safe above ground, and a cone-shaped drain to shed debris. Students showcased their innovative storm drain designs at a Family and Friends Friday event in early May.

Explaining their rationale for an upside-down-ice-cream-cone shaped storm drain, one group elaborated: “If leaves fall down, the water couldn’t get through, so we used popsicle sticks and screens and made it tall so leaves would fall off.” Eva was right when she told me, “their storm drain designs are amazing.”

“What suggestions do you have for our story project?” I asked the first graders, so I could bring their ideas back to the Water Inquiry team. “More stories!” they quickly agreed. “Another mission for Inquiry, Inc.”  Good news for this eager audience:  Inquiry Inc. has a new problem that they need help solving. The new story, Inquiry  Inc. and  the  Case  of  the  Flooded  Fields, is  designed as an “unfinished story box,” so students will get to create their own solutions, mail them in a Priority Envelope, and  hear  back  from  Inquiry, Inc. If you’re curious to learn more about Water Inquiry, or would like to pilot one of our stories in your classroom, please check out our website or e-mail Carol Berner cberner@smith.edu.

written by Carol Berner
May, 2019






If you’re curious to learn more about Water Inquiry or would like to find out how to participate, please check out our website or e-mail Carol Berner cberner@smith.edu.















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