Drinking up lesson

It was what Elizabeth Connell likes to call a “Wow!” moment.

Several fourth-graders crowded around Connell on Wednesday as she pointed out the anatomy of a small shark, cut open and laying atop a table.

Connell, whose job title is “science instigator,” has been working with students all year throughout Episcopal High School in Baton Rouge, but has spent a lot of time in Liz Crawford’s fourth-grade class. Connell’s various “instigations” are united by a theme that crisscrosses the elite private school. Focusing on water, the theme goes by the title, “Our Waters: Puddles To Bayous.”

Wearing a white lab coat and plastic gloves, Connell touched one of the shark’s organs and asked the children to identify it. One boy suggested it was the lung.

“That’s a good guess, but they don’t have lungs,” she said. “That’s the liver.”

The shark also had another interesting feature, it was pregnant, she said. Then, Connell reached into the innards of the sea creature and pulled out a small baby shark.

“Ooohhhhh!!!” the children erupted spontaneously.

That’s exactly the response Connell was looking for.

A veteran educator in her first year at Episcopal, Connell’s background is not in science so much as it is in educating children from gifted backgrounds. She said many teachers, including many science teachers, are focused rightly on delivering content and save the fun, engaging activities for the end of a unit. Connell turns that on its head.

“More and more of us realize you do the ‘Wow!’ moment first, then you do the investigation,” she said.

If the enthusiasm generated by the shark dissection is any indication, Connell is onto something.

After peering inside the shark, the teams of fourth-graders became “investigators,” searching the Internet for whatever they could find on sharks.

“I found out that they were alive 60 million years ago,” enthused Kaden Soonthornsima.

“Kaden,” interrupted Tia Talamantez. “You need to see this fact. It’s so cool,” pulling the boy over to her computer.

Tia began rattling off one shark fact after another. She turned to fellow investigator, Celia Stevens, busy exploring her iPad.

“Celia, pigs kill more people than sharks do!” she gushed.

Such dissections are normally saved for high school students. Connell said she was worried that the fourth-graders would be “grossed out” by the cut-open shark, but she found that wasn’t the case at all.

“They were less squeamish and more adventurous,” Connell said, than older students.

Crawford, their regular teacher, was enthusiastic about how the lesson went. She noted that her children normally see their energy flag right before lunch, but not on this Wednesday morning.

“They’re just drinking it up,” she said. “Yesterday, they thought they were going to be hesitant, but the caution lifted. They could do this every day.”

The “Our Waters: Puddles to Bayous” theme predates Connell’s arrival last summer and was championed by Jewel Reutner, Episcopal’s dean of curriculum and instruction. She successfully pursued a grant from Toshiba and the National Science Teachers Association to buy a variety of environmental sensors, probes and water analysis equipment.

Reutner saw water as a logical unifying theme. She noted that Episcopal students have long participated in service-learning projects such as LSU’s Coastal Roots program, but she wanted to go further. She said students take water for granted.

“It’s hard for students in Louisiana to realize there are water shortages around the world, when we have so much of it,” she said.

The theme is evident throughout Episcopal these days, from murals on the hallways painted by preschoolers to more ambitious water-based art on display in the school’s visual and performing arts center.

Connell tries to spark creativity across grades and disciplines. So many teachers have taken her up on her offers to help, that she said she’s almost too busy now.

“I think the best compliment I got was when a coach walked by an art room and said, “Why do I see microscopes?” Connell said.

Connell wasn’t done that Wednesday. Around 1:30 p.m., juniors and seniors in Kathy Morden’s “Science Investigations” class walked out into the main quad to see a newly constructed mock “crime scene.”

Inside the police tape barrier, Connell explained that a serial killer had struck again. Pointing to a body, actually a dummy, splayed out across a planter, Connell said the killer murders runners by drowning them and then dumping their bodies in a distant location, in this case Episcopal’s campus. The killer also had the weird quirk of murdering an animal as well. The dead runner indeed was clutching a dead raccoon — actually, a stuffed animal supplied by a teacher.

The students’ challenge was to figure out where the body was drowned by comparing a sample of water in the lungs of the victim with five different samples of water taken from other locales: a bathtub, a swimming pool, a lake, a bayou near a salt dome, and a pool on a golf course.

Morden’s students already had conducted forensic investigations of other mock crimes, but none so far involving water. To help, Connell brought in a handful of eighth-graders, or “interns” who, while younger, were more familiar with the water testing equipment.

Morden divided the students into five groups, one “intern” to each group, and had the students test for conductivity, pH number, chloride, dissolved oxygen and temperature. At the end of the class, the tentative conclusion was that the runner drowned at the golf course, but there was still more testing to do.

Moira Fontenot, a senior at Episcopal, said her school’s focus on Louisiana’s waters has personal appeal for her.

Her family routinely ventures into the swamps and lakes to go fishing, something that gives her an appreciation of the ecology of this state perhaps greater than some of her classmates who don’t venture outdoors so much. She said she values the school’s effort to get her peers to work to preserve that unique environment.

“Louisiana’s gorgeous,” she said. “When you go out into the bayou and you see the light shining through the trees. … We’re losing it all so fast.”