Piloting “Inquiry, Inc and the Case of the Flooded Fields”

“It’s science! It’s inquiry! It’s imagination!” Nan Childs, pilot teacher

This October, Nan Childs’ second and third grade class at Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School became the first to pilot a new curriculum designed by the Water Inquiry project. The class, called the Greens, followed Inquiry Inc.’s new adventure in The Case of the Flooded Fields. In the story, soccer player Lee finds their practice field completely flooded right before a big championship game. An open-ended conclusion allows for inquiry-based discussions in which students think and ask questions, brainstorm solutions, and present what they would do to help solve the problem. 

Piloting the Project

Nan Childs spent three lessons over three days facilitating the unit, which she split up into an introduction and story lesson, a siphoning experiment lesson, and a solution-design lesson.  The kids were given a decorated story box– inspired by the national Top Secret YA StoryBox Project— containing the storybook, materials for a siphoning experiment, and materials for presenting a solution. When the story box was unveiled, students were very enthusiastic about its sleek, creative, pizza-box design, which they recognized from the illustrations of the book. 


Story Day

Student researchers Emily Buxengaard, Emily Buck, and Brittany Collins, and project leader Professor Carol Berner, were able to observe the pilot lessons at Hilltown. The students were excited and responsive to having four guests in class. As Nan read the story aloud, the kids immediately connected to the material. They had experience with magic tricks, playing soccer, and even flooding, just like the characters, sparking text-to-self connections. 

Prompted with the questions, “Have you ever seen too much water? Where was it? Where did the water come from and what problems did it cause?” kids turned to each other in a Think and Talk activity and discussed their ideas. 

One student had seen flooding in their kitchen: “Our kitchen sink broke and every time we used it, water would go on the floor.” Another student said she had water flowing into her yard after it storms. “I saw too much water in my tennis court because it was raining really hard the day before,” one student remarked; “I couldn’t play tennis!” another called out; “I had a baseball game and in the middle of the game it started raining so they cancelled the game.” 

Although the book urged asking questions, the students were already thinking of ways to get rid of water. The next Think and Talk prompt was “What questions do you have? What do you think is the problem? What do you need to understand to solve the problem?” The Greens were eager to brainstorm what they would do to get water out of a flooded soccer field. Some of the answers were meant to be funny (i.e. use a “floaty field”) but were encouraged as creative problem-solving. After this encouragement, students became more serious with their ideas, generating questions in response to the prompt. 

Siphon Day

The next day was the highly-anticipated siphoning experiment day. The class opened with Nan revisiting the part of the story in which characters share their problem-solving ideas. Then, the Greens moved into a siphoning experiment which demonstrates a way in which water can move up, rather than down.  The kids were enthralled both by Nan’s demonstration and their own trials, and embraced the “mouth trick” when pipettes stopped providing enough suction. Equipped with this new perspective on how to move water, students started generating more solutions to the flooded field problem. 








Solution Day 

On the final day of the Flooded Fields pilot, students were focused on designing final drafts of their solutions. They had already created first drafts, which received feedback from peers through a gallery walk. Students collaborated in pairs and either combined solutions or submitted two separate ones. They had to draw and explain what their ideas were, given large handouts, a vocabulary word list, and art supplies. Incentivized by the characters’ call for help, the Greens quickly got to work. 

The students seemed engaged and focused on this final step, and spent a lot of time talking and listening to each other. Ideas included:

“We could siphon the water into the pipe!”

“Bubble soccer –– it’s a real sport.”

“Make a stream two feet deep to the river…not too deep so animals won’t get their home ruined.”

Students were excited when Nan told them they would get letters back from Inquiry Inc. As Carol left, there were hushed conversations about whether Inquiry Inc. was real. “It’s the college students,” one student said knowingly. 


Debriefing with Nan

Nan had lots of positive comments about the pilot. She mentioned that the kids loved that their ideas were listened to, and that the letters they received from Inquiry Inc. were a big part of that. Nan also liked how Inquiry Inc. pulled together many different subjects. She remarked in our meeting, “It’s not just reading, it’s science, it’s inquiry, it’s imagination!” 

Nan thought the Flooded Fields story was well-suited to her class and could also hold value for older students, which is certainly something to consider for future pilots . She was interested in returning to the lesson in two years with her next group of students.  Nan provided students with a vocabulary list including words like “siphon” and “absorb,” to aid in the brainstorming process. After talking as a group, the Water Inquiry team has decided to include similar vocabulary lists in the future. 

“Siphon the water into a car wash”

In our meeting with Nan, we were especially focused on improvements we could make in our next iteration of the Flooded Fields unit. She mentioned that she wished students had talked more about their solutions before doing their final drawings. Another idea Nan had was conducting experiments with models of  flooded soccer fields in order to test ideas and get kids even more involved in hands-on activities. 

“Put sandbags around the soccer field and siphon the water out.”

We were all excited to hear that Nan had encouraged several students to share their ideas in an all-school assembly. While we weren’t able to attend, Nan tells us the presentation [click to open PDF] was well-received. The kids were proud of their work and received lots of compliments from parents and teachers.

Future Goals

Unfinished story box brings “Flooded Fields” to classrooms

Looking back at the pilot, one of our main takeaways was the extent to which students and their ideas were valued. Nan informed us this is a very rare but very important thing to see in the classroom. Going forward, it’s important for us to keep this in mind. The letters, or “positive notes,” are an integral part of the project. We look forward to integrating into our unit the suggestions for improvement gleaned from Nan and her students and are excited to continue piloting Flooded Fields in other classrooms. If you are interested in bringing the unit to your school, or our premiere story unit, Inquiry Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings (geared toward 1st-3rd graders), please contact Carol Berner at cberner@smith.edu

Written by Emily Buck and Emily Buxengaard

Water Inquiry and The Year on Climate Change

The fall semester is underway, and students are settling into classes. Already, Water Inquiry has a ton of news to share, including a new project we’ve been working on since last year.

But first, it’s our pleasure to introduce some (relatively) new members of our team.

Emily Buck (she/her) is a first year from Iowa City, IA. Although she’s unsure what she wants to major in, literature and the humanities interest her. She decided to work with Water Inquiry because it combines so many things she loves: activism, creativity, problem-solving, and kids. Being new, she’s excited to find out where she fits in the team! Her other interests include playing the bassoon, spending time outdoors, and rock climbing.


Camille Butterfield (she/her) is a studio art major and landscape studies minor who’s well-acquainted with the New England wilderness despite growing up in Mamaroneck, NY. She’s fascinated by the intersection and combination of art and science, hoping to use her creative abilities to spread awareness of climate change. As such, Water Inquiry is a perfect fit for these interests, and she looks forward to making art that will excite and encourage students to further research current pressing environmental issues. Camille also runs for Smith’s cross country and track teams, reads, writes, bikes, hikes, and attempts to make music. 

Returning members include: Kat Van Green, Emily Buxengaard, Anna Wysocki, Abigail Moon, Brittany Collins, and faculty facilitator Carol Berner.

Camille’s sketch for journal

This September also marked the beginning of Smith’s Year On Climate Change, a campus-wide initiative proposed by the Study Group on Climate Change, a group of staff, faculty, students, alumnae, and trustees created in 2015 by Smith College President Kathy McCartney to determine the ways in which the College can effectively combat climate change. For this academic year, the school invites members of the Smith community to critically consider climate change both in and out of the classroom as a serious and complex issue. As part of that initiative, Smith hosted the Climate Equity and Justice: Solutions in Action conference from October 4-6, during which participants attended relevant lectures and conferences featuring a wide range of speakers, on topics such as coral reefs and environmental mindfulness, to the Farm to School movement and solar power overseas.

Stella Bowles portrait by Abby Moon

For our own part, Water Inquiry’s newest project seeks to empower kids to take action against climate change in their own communities. We’re creating a set of interactive journal prompts designed to provoke creative and critical thinking about water activism in middle school students. These prompts are inspired by young water activists around the world, such as Stella Bowles from Nova Scotia, who tested for fecal bacteria in her river and shared the shocking results on social media to pressure lawmakers into action! From water quality testing to political lobbying, there are many ways students can make a difference, and this project sets out to show just that.

Unfinished Story Box: pilots this week!

We’ll provide updates on all our projects, new and old, as the semester continues, so keep your eyes open for more. Thank you for reading, and if you are a classroom teacher interested in bringing Water Inquiry curricula to your school, or a Smith student interested in joining our project, please contact Carol Berner, Professor of Education & Child Study, at cberner@smith.edu to find out more!

Written by Kat Van Green


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.















November 2018: Original Stories, New Members

We’re halfway through another semester here at Smith College, and the Water Inquiry team has been busy. Not only did we gain several new members, but we met several times during the month to discuss developments on projects new and old.

Water Inquiry’s own Ruth Neils taught our first story, Inquiry, Inc. and The Case of the Missing Ducklings, to third grade students at the Campus School of Smith College. We are happy to report that it was a success; the students were very engaged, and the story helped them think critically about storm drains! We’re examining ways to adapt the story for an older audience, including providing more prompts for scientific and reflective writing. 

Right now we’re in the midst of polishing our second story. As stated previously, it will have an unfinished ending so that the students can think of a solution to the problem posed in the narrative. Some of our new members contributed their creative talents towards the project, and we piloted it during the summer, with fantastic results. We were pleased to see each student’s creative solution! The subject of this story is still a secret, but you can expect it to be flooding out soon. Now we are turning our sights to a third project. As we research, we are considering how to make topics intriguing for children, and what form would best suit our goals.

Stay tuned for more updates and, as always, thank you for your continued support and interest! If you’re interested in participating in this project or would like to find out more, please e-mail Carol Berner or post a comment or question.

But for now, I have the great joy of introducing our new members: 

Emily Buxengaard, a first year, hopes to major in either Chemistry or Engineering and minor in English. While she enjoys all sorts of writing from poetry to novels and wants to publish her work in the future, she has not yet written for children, and so she joined Water Inquiry to expand her skills. She also likes how the project teaches kids to think critically and creatively about problems, and enjoys reading and taking walks through nature.

Abigail Moon graduated from Clark University in May of 2017. Now she’s a post-baccalaureate fellow at the Smith College Museum of Art and a participant in Smith’s MAT program hoping to gain a certification to teach visual art to K-8 students. She likes to embroider, rock climb, and play board games. As a kid, she spent a lot of time exploring, fishing, and swimming in the rivers and lakes in Western Massachusetts; that’s when she decided to protect the water that surrounds her and learn more about it.

First year Katherine Van Green has wanted to be a writer since the age of ten, and as such intends to pursue an English major and Linguistics minor. When she isn’t reading, drafting stories, or tinkering in Photoshop, she can be found enjoying nature. She was interested in Water Inquiry due to her interests in writing and the outdoors. As the year progresses, she is excited to share stories with kids and effect change right here in Northampton.

They will be joining the current Water Inquiry members Brittany Collins, Meghan Johnson, Ruth Neils, Anna Wysocki, and Professor Carol Berner.

Written by Kat Van Green on behalf of Water Inquiry

Missing Ducklings at Maple Elementary

First grade teacher Margaret Betts reads Inquiry, Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings to her students.

“Yeah! Missing ducklings!” two first graders exclaimed, high-fiving one another while sitting criss-cross-applesauce on Margaret Betts’ classroom rug.

It was Friday the 13th, but the Water Inquiry Story Group was surrounded by enthusiasm at the launch of Inquiry, Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings at Maple Elementary School. Hazy sunlight hinted of spring as first graders clad in colorful sneakers embarked on a tour of their local storm drains. Students had already worked together to brainstorm about the positioning of “water cleaning facilities” in the storm-to-faucet journey of water– a conversation that left them excited and ready to explore as they walked single-file out of their classroom door.

Crouching down to peer in each storm-drain, student investigators made observations about contents (“Water! Lots of water!”; “A pipe!”; “A Band-Aid”).  Throwing pebbles into the drains’ depths, students imagined the ways in which pipes might connect and travel throughout the underground system.

Bringing their noticings and ideas back to the classroom, students then settled into our Inquiry, Inc. story, connecting their adventure to its plotline as they practiced the problem-solving steps that our protagonists model. After identifying the problem in the narrative (the baby ducklings are trapped in the storm-drain), the drains and pipes on the children’s playground served as fodder for creative thinking. When students were asked, “What would you do if you were Anna [the protagonist of the story]?,” they brainstormed a resourceful set of solutions based on what they had seen:

Student:    “Ask my Mom to sew me a rope and tie it to something and go down and get the ducklings.”
Margaret:  “How would you get in?”
Student:    “Open the grate”
Margaret:  “What if it’s too deep?”
Student:    “I would put scuba gear on and tie the rope to something and go down.”
Student:    “I would just grab a rope and go in and grab the ducklings and find the mom.”
Student:    “If I had a phone I would call the police and they could take the grate off.”
Student:    “I would call the fire department — they have a ladder.”

Adopted into the Easthampton first grade curriculum, Inquiry, Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings is an interactive story and learning adventure that will encourage a town-full of students to investigate the water systems that support and surround them. “It’s a whole pipe system!” one student exclaimed at the close of Margaret’s launch– a statement that is predictive of lessons to come. “Can we make our own storm drains?” another student asked, reflecting upon the day’s notes. “Like with a box? And poke holes in the top?”

These design-thinkers have yet to discover that our unit will ask them to do just that, applying their experiences, questions, and ideas to a science and engineering challenge that seeks to preclude duckling peril.

We are thrilled by students’ curiosity and can’t wait to see what they create!

Students were asked to draw their answers to the question, “Where does water go?” This illustrator captured the story’s conflict with his caption, “Uh Oh!”

Written by Brittany Collins on behalf of the Water Inquiry team.

The Flow of “Big Ideas”: Third Grade River Inquiry at the Smith College Campus School

“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.”
–E.B. White

“That explains it!” one student exclaimed while looking under rocks on the banks of the Mill River.  It was a sunny afternoon in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Jan Szymaszek’s third grade class was rapt.  Autumn leaves drifted from branches, landing atop craggy boulders, or else becoming subsumed in the downward rush of water.  Cameras in hand, students hopped their way through gravel and sand to capture moments that might generate questions or theories about rivers: how they move; where they lead; how they change.  The launch of this year-long science unit invited students to explore their natural environment, making observations that they could then carry into classroom discussions.

But learning does not always wait for the classroom.  Revelations babbled down the line of students as one young scientist, quoted above, connected Ms. Szymaszek’s questions about river volume to his noticing water under seemingly dry rocks.  Could it be that the river once flowed here, he wondered? And, if so, where did it go? Why did it “shrink”?

Back in the classrooms of SCCS, students have turned to finding answers. Thinking is made visible on every wall and surface.  River notes abound. Educational teammates in the pursuit of water knowledge, third grade teachers Jan Szymaszek and Amanda Newton (joined, this year, by Marcia Holden) work together to hone water curricula, adapting their projects and lessons each year.

To better understand the lessons enjoyed by this year’s third graders at the Campus School, I spoke with Jan about her iteration of the river unit.  Her students’ insights, questions, and ideas reveal the ways in which tenets of Environmental Inquiry—Inquiry-based Learning; Experiential Learning; and Stewardship—permeate this learning experience for students past and present.

Inquiry-based Learning and Marker Talks

“Inquiry-based Learning is a dynamic and emergent process that builds on students’ natural curiosity about the world in which they live… [placing] students’ questions and ideas, rather than solely those of the teacher, at the centre of the learning experience” (Natural Curiosity: Building Childrens’ Understanding of the World through Environmental Inquiry, Lorraine Chiarotto, p. 7)

After working with students and student teachers for over thirty years at the Campus School, Jan—who holds a B.A. and M.Ed. from Smith College—describes herself as “ever-learning,” working to “understand big ideas and enact them in the classroom.”

“I’m intrigued with what happens when big ideas get in front of children—how they interact with ideas and become people who know how to think and learn,” she shared with enthusiasm.

“That’s what I love about teaching.”

It is with attention to “how [students] think and learn” that Jan constructs her river lessons. Perhaps the most pervasive theoretical framework at play in Jan’s classroom is Inquiry-based Learning:  “It’s really [students’] ideas that guide our work together,” she shared while seated at a table filled with student work.  “Problematizing” the idea of water for her class, Jan works with students to generate questions such as “How does water move through nature?” and “Where does all of the water go?”

After walking to the Mill River on that sunny autumn day, Jan introduced the practice of Marker Talks with her students, an activity used in many SCCS classrooms. The first ground rule for participating in a Marker Talk is silence. One guiding question is written at the center of a big piece of paper, and students are asked to write an idea; an answer; a question drawn in connection to that at the center.  Then, they build on other’s ideas, qualifying their statements by using diction like: “I agree BECAUSE…” or “I don’t think so, BECAUSE…” or “What if we thought about it a different way?”

“Marker talks offer an opportunity for quieter students to participate,” Jan shared.  “I read Susan Cain’s Quiet, which made me think differently about how I offer opportunities in my classroom for students who recharge internally.”  When reading students’ Marker Talks, it seems most resonant to refer back to Chiarotto’s text, which cites one Knowledge Building principle (of twelve) as “idea improvement.”  Al Rudnitsky, professor of Education & Child Study at Smith College, uses marker talks in his college classrooms and often brainstorms with Jan about Knowledge Building. “The end-point or final product is not known at the outset” (Chiarotto, p. 8) within an Inquiry-based Learning classroom, or within a Marker Talk.  So it is that Jan joins her class in collective, collegial discovery, looking to her students to lead the way while working to improve scientific thinking together.

Experiential Learning

“As Dewey (1938) and Kolb (1984) suggest, concrete experience alone does not amount to Experiential Learning. To transform experience into new knowledge, students need to derive meaning from that experience… Conscious engagement with direct experience is precisely where Experiential Learning and Inquiry-based Learning converge” (Chiarotto, p.35).

After students plodded through pine needles and mud puddles, snapping pictures and asking questions along the way, their return to the classroom was focused.  In Jan’s classroom, students were asked to observe their photographs, write about what they noticed, and turn those observations into questions or hypotheses for further investigation.

“I see the watter gowing over a roke and terning into fome,” one young writer shared.  “And it looks like it’s gowing faste. Why is it gowing faster on the other side?… Why dose the watter get fomy wen it crashes into sompthing? Why is that a kerent [current]? Wen thar is a roke the water splits in half and flos in difrent aryas [areas].”

To prepare for their lessons, third grade teachers embark on experiential learning adventures of their own. In collaboration with Water Inquiry, a research group led by Carol Berner, professor of Education and Child Study at Smith College, Jan visited the MacLeish Field Station, local reservoirs, and a water treatment plant alongside teachers from Jackson Street and Leeds Elementary School.  Workshops and outdoor investigations allowed her to better understand the “storm to faucet” journey of water—relating the movement of water through pipes to the third grade curricular focus on the movement of water through nature.

Constructing opportunities for experiential immersion and reflective understanding, third graders’ science lessons inspire a ripple effect:  In September, a group of Campus School parents organized a team of participants for the 2017 “Source to Sea Cleanup,” hosted in four states by the Connecticut River Conservancy, working in a spirit reminiscent of place-based education expert David Sobel’s words:  “Wet sneakers and muddy clothes are prerequisites for understanding.”


“In an environmental context, stewardship refers to human actions that contribute to a sustainable future for humans, animals, and plant species alike. Acts of stewardship grow from a deep respect for, and desire to protect, the balance of nature within the Earth’s biosphere” (Chiarotto, 54).

The real rush of rivers greets students when they return to the Mill River in springtime.  Third graders rear trout eggs throughout the spring semester, learning to study and nurture the fish throughout their development. Of this capstone experience, Jan shared: “Students form an intimate relationship with their trout. We don’t name them or anything like that, but the kids form a tender connection to the environment… [they become] stewards of the environment” while raising their fish before carrying them to the Mill River, where they release each trout in a collective act of giving.

Riverfest, the culminating day of this science unit, is usually the time when students embark on their bittersweet release.  The day is cyclical, connecting students to their third grade origins—their first group adventure into forests and streams.  Upon their return, the river has changed, and so have they.  Educational researcher Kieran Egan writes of “Learning in Depth”—the notion that students who learn about a single subject in as much depth as possible, during the entirety of their elementary school careers, will better develop cognitive strategies and confidence in learning environments.  Adding another dimension to the subject, third grade educators at SCCS tap into the power of expertise.  Students learn from local experts—community members, parents, Smith College science professors Andrew Guswa, a hydrologist in the Picker Engineering Program, and Bob Newton, a geoscientist, with whom they confer and advance “content knowledge.”

But students leave the third grade as experts, too, carrying with them the power of nurturance and the probing of good, effectual inquiry.  2008 alumna Persis Ticknor-Swanson, now an Environmental Science major at Barnard College with research experience in Marine Biology, treasures her memories of the third grade river unit:

“My one distinct memory about… the river unit was when we released little boats we had constructed off the bridge at Smith College. We were all so excited to see what would happen to our boats, and there was a lot of jockeying among us to peer over the red railing towards the river below. I remember watching Maddy Stern’s little half lemon boat successfully bob away, while my bark-with-a-stick-in-it boat became immediately indistinguishable from everything else in the river. The highlight of the day was when Ezekiel Baskin’s massive half-watermelon boat, which was so carefully and beautifully decorated, hit the water and immediately sank, providing endless laughter to silly eight year old kids. Ms. Szymaszek did such a good job instilling in us a wonder for the natural world, and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to visit the river museum in Turner’s Falls and the salmon ladder. She made learning so much fun.”

Past student teacher at the Campus School, Emily Cryan (SC ’17), now a first grade teacher at a KIPP elementary school, was also inspired by her observations of third graders’ river studies. “What makes this unit so student focused,” she shared, “is that much of the lifting is done by the students… the students are the ones doing investigations, not so much the teachers. The launch of the unit sparks students’ innate curiosity and gets them to ask the question, ‘How does this work?’”

To return to the sentiments of E.B. White, third graders leave their Campus School classrooms and forever see, within water and thought, a natural, ever-present “wonder.”

Works Cited
(in order of appearance)

Chiarotto, Lorraine. Natural Curiosity: Building Childrens’ Understanding of the World through Environmental Inquiry. University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 2011.

“Quote 580.” Sticks, Rocks, and Dirt, www.sticksrocksdirt.com/node/580/backlinks.

Written by Brittany Collins. Reprinted with permission from The Lab School: A Journal of Insight and Inquiry from the Campus School at Smith College.

A Duckling Story Computer Game? Read on!

It was a Saturday morning in January, -14 degrees, but students at the Williston Northampton School were bundled and ready to learn.  In a basement classroom in Easthampton, Massachusetts, Water Inquiry researchers Brittany Collins and Lily Sun projected images of Inquiry Inc. onto the SmartBoard in Kim Evelti’s Intro to Programming class and introduced students to characters.

In the coming months, high schoolers will work with Water Inquiry to create a computer game that complements our inaugural water story, Inquiry Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings. “Students seem very excited about collaborating with the Smith community,” Lily said after presenting to the class. “Although this is a beginning programming class, I could tell that they want to work hard to execute this vision.

In consultation with Kim, who is the Director of Curriculum as well as a Math Teacher and Dorm Parent at Williston, Lily created a storyboard for students to use when designing their game:

“I [wanted to conceptualize] a game for first grade teachers to incorporate into their curriculum alongside our storybook. Carol had the idea of using scientific terminology in a game to teach kids about water vocabulary so, using our existing storylines, I tried to think of an interactive game that would allow kids to engage in learning processes about problem solving and the water cycle. In such a technology-dependent world, kids are surrounded by technology all of the time, so [games] really grasp their attention.  This game incorporates the piloted books’ model of ‘stop and think; stop and talk; stop and do’ and has an emphasis on problem-solving as well as partner work, so it is unique because it will allow kids to not only interact with technology, but with each other—working together to investigate big curricular ideas.”

  Using the storyboard, storybook, and Educator Toolkit as guides, Williston students will design their prototype with an eye towards educational engagement and entertainment, bringing Inquiry Inc characters to life while adding a new dimension to our project.

We can’t wait to see what they create!


Written by Brittany Collins on behalf of Water Inquiry.

Clue Number 2! A Rhyme from Water Inquiry

“Flood cupcakes” were enjoyed by Water Inquiry researchers at their recent meeting!

Welcome, Water Inquirers, to the end of another year!
As you grade your final papers, we hope you’ll lend an ear.

It’s been a productive fall in our “thinking lab” near Capen.
Inquiry, Inc. characters had lots of puddles to play in.

Carlos asked his questions; Lee had lots of fun.
But we can’t tell you why, for the story has just begun!

Back in late October, we presented you with a clue.
And though it was quite telling, its relevance we did eschew.

But now it’s time for another hint, as the first snow falls and vacation draws near.
If you play close attention, the theme of our upcoming story should ring clear:

On a cold winter’s eve, Water Inquiry did gather
In the apartment of Pinn, where blue frosting she did lather
Upon some “flood cupcakes,” with rubber duckies and all–
An edible depiction of the narrative we crafted this fall.

“What happens when there is too much water?” our characters ask with concern
As rain pools in important places, lending opportunities to think and to learn.

While our first tale chronicled ducklings as they traveled underground,
Our new tale presents a different problem about water that surrounds.

From drain to rain
And rain to drain
Our characters brought their knowledge.
But “What about water that doesn’t disappear?” is a question that stumped students in college.

So that is the plight that characters now explore
In an exciting new story that surely will not bore.

Your students will get to end the tale *
Before packing their work into a box and sending it through the mail.
We eagerly await their problem-solving,
Their questions and hypotheses ever-evolving.

Goodbye for now, and we will see you after the break,
Ready to share our story about a field that turns into a lake!

‘Till next time,
The Water Inquiry Team

*stay tuned for details about the “Unfinished Story Box” writing challenge that will invite your students to create and share original endings for the next Inquiry, Inc. water investigation. 

Written by Brittany Collins on behalf of Water Inquiry

New Ideas, New Members, New Stories!

As we gathered in late September to commence our first meeting of the 2017-18 Water Inquiry Story Project, much excitement was felt among old and new members alike. New members were eager to join a story-creating research group, and veteran members were enthusiastic to start anew, having had such success with last year’s Inquiry, Inc. pilot story. With the new school year came our new working space, the Capen Annex Design Thinking Lab.

One of our main tasks was to decide our next course of action: write a new story, create a new format, do more research, widen our perimeters, etc. After a couple of weeks spent thinking, reflecting, and discussing, some of our amazing team members discovered and brainstormed a fabulous new vision: Inquiry, Inc. will appear in a story that your very own students can finish!

Inspired by the YA Unfinished Storybook Project, our next Inquiry, Inc. story will be formatted in an innovative and exciting way. Participating classrooms will receive an unfinished story featuring the familiar characters of Inquiry, Inc., along with a decorated “secret mission” story box in which to submit their original endings. In a letter to students,  Inquiry, Inc. will ask for help with their newest problem. They NEED their friends’ — your students’ — expertise and fresh ideas. We will introduce the drama of a compelling local water problem; model the first steps of inquiry; then hand the problem-solving off to students, asking them to finish our story in a way that helps Inquiry Inc. “save the day”, as shouted in their jingle.

This new format rings true with the purpose of our Water Inquiry Project: learning through inquiry and interacting with the local environment. We would love to provide you with more information, but that would defeat the purpose of this Top Secret Mission, wouldn’t it? We can give you a little clue as to what we were talking about in our meeting pictured above, though; we were busy deciding what problem Inquiry, Inc. would solve next… and the hint is that we saw a lot of it while walking in a nearby park:


OK, enough secrets given away for one day! Stay tuned for updates and releases.

Thank you for keeping up with our project, we really appreciate your support and can’t wait to have Inquiry Inc. arrive in your classrooms! If you’re interested in participating in this project or would like to find out more, please e-mail Carol Berner or post a comment or question.

In the meantime, it is my pleasure to introduce the members of the 2017-18 Water Inquiry team:

Brittany Collins joined the Water Inquiry Project in 2016. She is interested in narrative learning, story-form thinking, and the integration of story in STEM curricula. Brittany attended the Smith College Campus School and has enjoyed returning as a classroom aide, dance teacher, and (now) a marketing and writing intern, as well as water researcher. A native of the Pioneer Valley, Brittany grew up exploring the outdoors– hiking, fishing, swimming, ice skating. She brings to Water Inquiry a desire to foster in students a love of the “inner” world of books and the “outer” world of their communities and environments, worlds that she views as reciprocal and connected.

Pinn Janvatanavit is a senior at Smith College from Bangkok, Thailand. She is majoring in education and minoring in studio art. Pinn loves to bake, sing and dance in her free time. This is her first year joining the Water Inquiry Project and she is mostly looking forward to helping out with the illustration and story planning processes.

Meghan Johnson is a junior Environmental Science & Policy and Education & Child Study double major at Smith College. In environmental science, Meghan focuses on marine ecology and is fascinated by issues such as clean water and rising seas. In addition to studying all about the oceans, Meghan enjoys spending time backpacking, swimming, scouting, and appreciating nature. Since the spring of 2017, Meghan has enjoyed working on the Water Inquiry project to educate children about the inquiry process and environmental issues happening all around them. Meghan is excited to see the Water Inquiry project grow!

Ruth Neils is an Education and Environmental Science double major and a current Junior at Smith College. Originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ruth grew up surrounded by the Great Lakes, spending much of her childhood exploring the water and nature around her. Ruth enjoys being outdoors hiking, swimming, and traveling, all of which she has had the privilege of doing during her time abroad in New Zealand for the fall semester of 2017. The Water Inquiry Project perfectly combines Ruth’s interests in the environment and education fostering scientific investigation and discovery through engagement with the natural world. Ruth has enjoyed being part of the evolution and growth of the Water Inquiry Project over the past two years and is excited to continue working on the project to see the new directions it will take in the future.


Hannah Searles is a senior education and psychology double major who has been working on the water project in one form or the other since her first year. She is interested in elementary education and learning about creative ways to incorporate story and science in the classroom. In her spare time, she spends extra time in the water on the diving team at Smith. 


An Easthampton, MA native, Lily Sun studies Psychology at Trinity College. With her interests in Psychology, she has had research experience in the field. She enjoys working with kids and is excited to join the Smith community as a Water inquiry researcher. In her free time, she enjoys dancing, playing her violin, knitting, and reading.

Anna Wysocki is a sophomore who is currently undeclared, but plans on declaring a major in Government and is still pursuing numerous fields she wishes to minor in, from Public Policy to Environmental Science and Policy. Growing up in upstate New York, in a town called Hoosick Falls, Anna has an interesting experience with water that drove her initial interests in this project. Her town’s water supply was discovered to have been poisoned by a pollutant called PFOA just a couple years ago, which is known to be linked with serious health consequences. She joined the Water Inquiry Project in 2016 hoping to reveal water in its many forms and promote water safety and knowledge through the story-writing process. She loved her last year working on the project and is excited to introduce the project in a new light this year. Anna is also a member of the lacrosse team at Smith, a Head of New Students in her house, and is a Gold Key tour guide.

And last but not least, our fearless faculty leader Carol Berner!

Written by Anna Wysocki on behalf of the Water Inquiry team.

How do rivers stay clean? Current events coming our way

Over the next two weeks, several local water-related events may spark your curiosity: whether you’re interested in how water gets clean; how public artwork impacts water policy; or how you and your class might participate in a river clean-up. Water seems a crucial topic given the devastation caused by recent hurricanes; supplementing conversations about extreme weather with opportunities to learn about local water allows students and educators to learn more about this natural resource, whose everyday intricacies are equally astounding as its sheer power in the midst of a storm.

What discourses and projects are you and your students tackling? What are your students’ curiosities, concerns, and questions? As the Water Inquiry team gets back to work this fall, please keep us posted on your interests so that we can stay current, too.

Documentary: HERE’S TO FLINT
September 13, 2017
Forbes Library, 20 West St, Northampton
6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
“Here’s to Flint,”
a documentary by the ACLU Michigan, examines what led up to the poisoning of the largely African American city, and, on a larger scale, how lack of funding in infrastructure poses risks to the entire country. Speakers to kick off the post-film discussion include: Mary Ann Babinski, Westfield City Councilor, who will talk about water safety problems closer to home with activists from Westfield Residents Advocating for Themselves (WRAFT); and David Ahlfeld, Prof. of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UMass Amherst. A link to the Facebook event page: More…

Connecticut River Conservancy invites you to three events that address the question, “How do our rivers stay clean and healthy?” Science and engineering practices, community art, and an annual river clean-up afford insight into the multidisciplinary approaches community members use when tackling this unifying problem.

Springfield Wastewater Treatment Tour, Agawam, MA
Thursday, September 14
5:45 – 7:45pm
What happens to water when it goes down the drain? How does it get cleaned? We’ll join SUEZ Water Environmental Services, Inc. and Springfield Water and Sewer Commission for an informative tour of the Springfield Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility and learn about the process of cleaning wastewater for public health. RSVP REQUIRED

The Power of Water / The Power of Words Reception
Saturday, September 16, 1 – 3pm
Great Falls Discovery Center
2 Avenue A 
Turners Falls, MA

Join us for a celebratory reception of the powerful, collective art installation of The Power of Water / The Power of Words at the Great Falls Discovery Center. This beautiful art sculpture serves a powerful public policy purpose.

Source to Sea Cleanup

Friday & Saturday, September 22 & 23 
This annual trash cleanup allows us to connect with our community members and rivers– in 4 states! Learn more or sign up at www.ctriver.org/cleanup.