Juniata Valley teacher brings science alive

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Juniata Valley teacher brings science alive

Voice: September 2017

In some ways, Kristin Joivell is a big fish in a small pond.

She teaches kindergarten and is a highly experienced adviser to a very hands-on elementary school science club in a small rural school district – Juniata Valley in Huntingdon County.

Then again, she swims with some big scientific fish in national and international research studies involving ponds, rivers, and oceans. Like an ecosystem, those experiences flow back to her students at Juniata Valley Elementary School.

Joivell was a Teach Earth Senior Fellow on an Earthwatch Institute scientific expedition researching predator and prey relationships and how they are being affected by climate change in ponds in Canada’s Hudson Lowlands during the summer of 2016.

Having been on an Earthwatch expedition to study coral reef in the Bahamas in 2010, and a veteran of five major research projects in her career, Joivell was the lone senior fellow among nine teachers on the two-week Canadian expedition.

In addition to helping the scientists collect data, one of her main jobs was to work with the other teachers on how to bring the experience back to their classrooms – something she has been doing for years at Juniata Valley.

“I want science in the classroom to be not just classroom experiments,’’ Joivell said. “I want the students in the field collecting real data, just like real scientists do. I want them to be citizen scientists.’’

Reaching students at young age

As a follow-up to the Canadian expedition, Joivell took different groups of six students – mixing kindergartners through sixth-graders – on weekly or semiweekly trips to local ponds last spring through partnerships with the Pennsylvania Amphibian and Reptile Survey Group and the Huntingdon County Conservation District.

The after-school trips ran from 3 to 8 p.m., and began with a PowerPoint presentation. In the field – a representative from the conservation district or the survey group was usually in attendance – the students would use photographic identification guides to learn to identify amphibians, reptiles, plants, and macroinvertebrates.

“A key feature was also learning to disinfect our equipment,’’ Joivell said. “It was used in multiple ponds, and we didn’t want to spread contamination. That was another lesson for the students.’’

They would then return to the school to eat “packed dinners’’ prepared by parents before discussing the data they collected. Wanting to incorporate art into the project, she also had the students draw depictions of some of the species and plants they observed – i.e., frogs, toads, and salamanders.

Little school making big splash

The spring pond project is just the latest project involving actual field work with students at Juniata Valley Elementary.

Joivell has worked with students to study the health of a portion of the Juniata River that runs near the elementary school. She has also worked with students, parents, community members, and conservation groups to create a nature center and trail alongside the school. And that is far from a complete list.

The pond project culminated in a Family Science Night in May during which the nearly 50 students who participated displayed their work, and attendees could visit interactive booths.

“We wanted to convey to parents and community members that these things are out there in our ponds, and why we should care about them,’’ Joivell said. “Some of these creatures are indicators of pollution and all kinds of things.’’

Despite her vast experience on research expeditions – she took a sixth trip this summer to study arctic plants in Greenland – Joivell seems most proud of the students’ work and eagerness.

“We are investigating our own environment,’’ she said. “Our little school is doing some real data collection.’’