COLD FACTS : Elementary Pupils Take to Polar Studies the Way Penguins Take to Ice Water

Times Staff Writer

Polar bears don't eat penguins, and young Connie Grande knows why.

Connie and her sixth-grade classmates at Beachy Avenue Elementary School in Pacoima are learning about the Earth's polar regions through an innovative program developed by the Los Angeles Unified School District. The program is being introduced in local schools this fall.

The curriculum, which has been in the making for five years, is one of the few in the nation that deals with the science and social studies, even the politics, of both the Arctic and the little understood continent of Antarctica. The new program also reflects the growing belief that the best way to teach science, especially in elementary schools, is to allow the students to make their own discoveries while doing experiments.

Different Worlds

In the process, children learn why polar bears don't eat penguins: Not because the bears don't like the taste of penguins, not because the bears can't outrun penguins, but because polar bears and penguins literally live poles apart.

"Before we started," Connie said, "I thought the Arctic and the Antarctic were exactly the same. Now I know they are completely different except they're both cold."

The curriculum was recently selected as one of the 12 best elementary school science and mathematics programs in a national search funded by the National Science Foundation.

"They really had the elementary school child in mind when they formulated this unit," said teacher Margaret Evans, who pilot-tested the program at Beachy. One of its attractions, she said, is that it includes lessons on creatures children find charismatic.

"There are three animals that children seem to like the most: penguins, whales and dinosaurs," Evans said.

A variety of penguins and whales are included in the unit. And, fittingly, in an age when youngsters can often say " Tyrannosaurus rex " before they can pronounce "spaghetti," there is a dinosaur as well. Several of the lessons deal with Gondwanaland, the theoretical southern super-continent that may have existed more than 200 million years ago. Its denizens included Lystrosaurus, a swamp-dwelling reptile whose fossilized remains have been found in Antarctica and elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere.

Teachers Saw Need

According to Sid Sitkoff, the school district's instructional specialist for science and director of the project, teachers first expressed the need for better materials for teaching about the polar regions. There were bits and pieces in existing textbooks and the occasional TV special, but there was no comprehensive curriculum to help teach about the planet's frozen frontiers. The district obtained federal and state grants of about $100,000 for the project.

Six district teachers sat down to develop the new course of study. According to Glenn Braaten, a science teacher at Grover Cleveland High School in Reseda who was on the writing team, the teachers scoured libraries for appropriate material and also interviewed individuals who knew the polar regions firsthand.

As lessons were developed, they were checked for accuracy by science foundation staff and other scientists. They were also field-tested in area classrooms. Students who had been taught the polar regions curriculum were compared to students who had not. Tests showed that the new lessons were effective.

The children who studied them knew far more about the polar regions than those who studied only the conventional science curriculum. Through a questionnaire, the project staff also learned that many of the students in the experimental group ran home and excitedly told their families what they were learning about plate tectonics and polar expeditions.

Scientific Adviser

Biologist Arnold Small, who travels to Antarctica every February during the Antarctic summer to study Adelie penguins and other polar phenomena, was a scientific adviser to the project. Small, a retired college teacher who lives in Beverly Hills, praised the curriculum for its scientific accuracy and its ability to engage students. He said he used it in his courses at Harbor Community College and at UCLA.

Evans' classroom at Beachy is a veritable shrine to the penguin, filled with stuffed toy penguins, pictures of penguins and ceramic penguins, many of them gifts from students. The Chaplinesque birds even appear on her coffee cup.

During a recent lesson, Evans directed students to "get out our icebergs." In Antarctica, some icebergs are as big as Connecticut. In Evans' classroom, the icebergs were actually ice cubes. First, the students studied the concept of density. They put pennies in a pill vial and immersed the vial in salty water and plain water. They discovered that salty water, like that in the oceans, is much denser than fresh water. They had to add more pennies to the vial to get it to sink in salty water than they needed to sink the vial in plain water.

After floating the ice cubes in the same glasses of water, they found that their stand-in icebergs (composed of fresh water like real icebergs) rode much higher in the denser salt water than in fresh water. "Aurora, what do you observe?" Evans asked.

Exact Conditions

As the children scrutinized their icebergs, the teacher noted that scientists must be careful to repeat the exact conditions of an experiment if they hope to get comparable results. She reminded the children that "H2O" is the chemical formula for water. She explained that the prefix "an - " in "Antarctica" indicates that it is opposite the Arctic. And she told them that, difficult as it is to believe, Antarctica is technically a desert because it has so little precipitation.

She also broke the bad news about glaciers. "I hate to disillusion you," she said, "but glaciers are the dirtiest, ickiest things you've ever seen."

Evans thinks one reason for the class's fascination with the polar regions is that their own climate is so different. "Especially in California, there are some children who have never seen snow," she said. While the students contemplated a continent where bitter, 200-m.p.h. winds whip across the glaciers, a classroom fan tried to beat the San Fernando Valley's autumn heat.

A champion of hands-on science, Evans noted that as soon as students begin working with ice cubes and other objects they can manipulate, "the language barrier falls." Many of her students speak Spanish at home. But in the classroom they can see the results of an experiment for themselves, regardless of whether they know the English words for what they observe. They also learn the new scientific vocabulary at the same time classmates do, independently of how much English they know.

Observation seems to make scientific facts more credible, especially when what is observed is unexpected or counter-intuitive. "We are doing it instead of reading it," student Anthony Caoyonan said.

But the big plus of hands-on science is simpler and more powerful than that, according to student Jose Jamir. "It's much funner," he said.

Although perfect English skills are not required, writing is an important part of the polar regions curriculum, Evans said. Students plan an imaginary trip to Antarctica and write about what they would bring with them. "If the children know only Spanish, they can write in Spanish," Evans said. "That way I learn some new vocabulary, like the Spanish for parka ." (The term for an Eskimo-style parka is abrigo de piel con capucha.)

As the class ended, Evans suggested that the youngsters continue their experiments after school: Try freezing some very salty water at home, she said, and see if it gets hard or stays slushy.

That night, refrigerators in Pacoima were commandeered for polar research.

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