Cave Dwellers Whitfield Seventh-Graders Hone Lab Skills by Testing Ground Water

Article excerpt

Elizabeth O'Keefe's seventh-graders at Whitfield School in west St. Louis County have found an ocean of lab skills in a few drops of cave water.

Over the past year they have checked test tubes of water for acidity, alkalinity, nitrate-nitrogen, iron, cyanide and coliform, among other things.

Their research is part of a two-year project to teach students about scientific research through the study of ground water in Missouri caves.

Because of the project, O'Keefe recently became one of 40 teachers in the country and the only teacher in Missouri to win an $8,800 Toyota Tapestry grant. Toyota Motor Sales Inc. awarded nearly $400,000 this year for innovative science teaching in kindergarten through grade 12. The National Science Teachers Association administers the grants. In O'Keefe's class, the grant paid for a new computer, research material and chemical test kits.

"Missouri has more than 5,000 caves, and we know very little about them," said O'Keefe, who has 20 years of teaching experience. "I hope this research will open the door to further studies."

O'Keefe's students will study how seasons change ground water in caves. They will investigate whether pollution of cave water is greater in urban or rural areas. They will look for evidence of runoff from herbicides and pesticides. Preliminary findings indicate pollution from fertilizers and other sources has increased. O'Keefe expects to have more conclusive data next year.

In O'Keefe's class, rather than reading textbooks the students write their own books using graphs, charts and text. Over the school year, O'Keefe teaches students about measurement, including graphs and analysis of information; about change in weather, population, evolution and hormones; about patterns in crystals, wind and water and animals; and about cycles such as boiling points, photosynthesis and sexual reproduction. …

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