Fifth-graders bring scientific method to madness

From an experiment gone slightly awry, students learn that problem-solving can still be fun


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Some fifth-graders at Mars Area Centennial School learned firsthand that, when it comes to science, failure can be just as important as success.

As part of a multidicipline approach to the book "Project Mulberry," teachers Dana Fenio and LouAnn Mattock planned to hatch more than 100 silkworm eggs and study them through the larvae and cocoon stages until they turn into moths.

But the students and their teachers hadn't counted on a chilly classrooms stunting the eggs' development. When that happened, they also learned another scientific truism -- a good researcher always has a backup plan, or two.

This was the first year for the silkworm project, Mrs. Fenio said. Funding for the books, eggs and larvae came from a grant from the Mars Area Foundation for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit corporation that provides minigrants for enrichment projects requested by teachers.

When the eggs failed to hatch in the classroom, Mrs. Fenio took some home. When that didn't work, she ordered larvae from a company in California so students could continue the lesson.

"Sometimes, things don't work out the way you want," she said. The students grasped the situation.

"Our room temperature is around 68 degrees and, for a silkworm to go into a pupa ... it has to be between 78 and 85 degrees," said Vanessa Vogel.

Mrs. Fenio asked the class what else they could do to help the eggs hatch.

"We could get an incubator," said Hannah Kemper.

"Keep watching," said Mitch Corsi.

"Pray," said Nico Romano.

While students waited for the ill-fated egss to hatch, there was plenty to learn. Pupils tested the strength of threads of cotton, silk and polyester. First, they hypothesized about which they thought was strongest, then tested the strength of each type of thread with a spring scale, which measured how much the spring expanded before the thread broke.

The class was split in their hypotheses. Olivia Orban thought silk would be strongest, because of the strength of spiders' webs. Not Emma Gerthoffer. She saw someone easily tear a silk shirt off a participant in the reality TV show "What Not to Wear."

"I think polyester is the strongest," said Rebecca Dvorak. "It's man-made. Shouldn't it be stronger?"

Blake Thompson thought cotton would be strongest, noting the stretchiness of his cotton shirt.

"You're basing your hypothesis on what you've seen in your personal experience," Mrs. Fenio noted. "That's what we do."

When the silk wasn't doing well in the strength test in one group, Mrs. Fenio saw another teaching opportunity.

"You'd think natural would be stronger," said Elise Sheehy.

"But is this thread still natural?" Mrs. Fenio asked.

"It's been dyed," noted Jennifer Walker.

"Maybe the dye weakened it," said Elise.

"It's so good to see them engaged in thinking," Mrs. Fenio said. "The wheels are turning."

In other classes, the students read books about silk, including "Project Mulberry," which is about a class that hatches silkworm eggs, and "The Empress and the Silkworm," which is about making silk in China.

John Tate, the substitute principal at Centennial, spoke to the classes about his tour of a silk factory in China, and passed around his photographs.

"It's really something to see because it's been going on for thousands of years," he told them. "It's a lot of manual labor, a lot of hands-on. While we rely on a lot of machines, they rely on people."

Each student also published a newspaper, which used both writing and technology. Jimmy Pierre, publisher of The Pierre Dispatch, explained that each newspaper had stories, a new ending for "Project Mulberry," an advice column, letters to the editor and a comic strip.

For social studies, they discussed Marco Polo and the Silk Road, which started the age of exploration.

Undaunted by early difficulties, Mrs. Fenio she said she would try to obtain a grant for a mini-incubator for next year's project -- to make sure the eggs move beyond looking like poppy seeds.

The project was worth it, despite the setbacks, she said.

"My enjoyment in all of this is seeing them get all excited about learning and making the connections and relating it to life," she said. "You get them excited, and the learning comes right along with it."

And for those curious about the outcome of strength tests on thread, Mrs. Fenio provided the following results just before Easter: Cotton, 4.55 N, Silk 5.025 N, and Polyester 7.65 N. Polyester won.

Mrs Fenio wrote in an e-mail, "After we had 12 samples to average, we did the statistically correct thing and threw out the high and low in each group, and then established an average."


Freelance writer Sandy Trozzo can be reached in care of suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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