The timer winds down outside Anne E. Moncure Elementary School in Stafford County. Precious seconds tick away while fifth-graders watch with anticipation to see if their creation will clean up oil dumped in a makeshift waterway.
“You guys made this. It’s driving around. Be proud,” said Principal Greg Machi, applauding the group crowded around a blue and white inflatable pool, exhorting their motorized sponge-like devices, built from PVC pipe, pool noodles and oil absorbency pads, to soak up the blackish oil dumped in the clear water.
“No wonder they call it trial and error,” said 10-year-old Zoe Lenzmeier, as her group’s machine struggles to move through the water.
Her group’s machine successfully cleaned up oil, but will need some modifications to move better in the water.
University of Mary Washington Professor of Education George Meadows, who oversaw the student testing, deemed all the inventions a success. “They built a remote-control machine with a purpose,” said Meadows, who spearheaded this project through a $2,390 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.
Meadows partnered with principals and teachers at Anne E. Moncure, Hartwood and Ferry Farm elementary schools and Friends of the Rappahannock to educate more than 300 students about water pollution caused by oil spills before starting the building process.
Through the grant, the schools were able to purchase all of the materials and participate in workshops led by educators from Friends of the Rappahannock on watershed, human impact on rivers and oil spills.
“I hope they realize that they can make a difference,” said Lowery Pemberton, education coordinator for Friends of the Rappahannock, as she watched the next group test their machine. “And that this motivates them to figure out solutions for themselves.”
Students in groups of four to five were given a real-world scenario where they had a $1,000 budget to purchase materials. Then they had about five total hours to build over the course of a few weeks.
During the last week of school they tested and observed the machines by simulating an oil spill.
“This is what 21st century learning must increasingly be for all students—multifaceted meaningful engagement that builds complex knowledge and skills, that emphasizes collaboration, critical thinking and creativity, and that embraces the importance of iterations to deep, nuanced, and useful understandings,” said Mary Gendernalik-Cooper, dean of the UMW College of Education, who also came to observe the students as they tested their machines.
After testing, students returned to their classrooms to discuss, but some students already were planning improvements.
“I would probably attach the funnel that turns – that filters the oil into water – to the machine so it doesn’t create drag,” said 10-year-old Seamus Gutierrez, after his machine finishes its test run. “It was hard to control and maybe it was too long because it jammed against the corners.”