Georgia Tech Researchers Bring Beach to Laurel Ridge Elementary School

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For elementary school children, an upcoming field trip is riveting, the one time they find  themselves unable to sleep in anticipation. This year, fifth-grade students at Laurel Ridge Elementary School, in Decatur, were bound for a beach on Tybee Island, the easternmost point of the state of Georgia. But some couldn’t go. Thanks to School of Biology Professor Joel E. Kostka and his students, these fifth graders did not have to miss the excitement of a year-end activity.

“We were asked by the organizer of outreach opportunities – Tracy Hammer – to come, because half of the kids in the fifth-grade class could not make it to the beach,” Kostka said. “So we brought the beach to them.”

This clever solution had many positive outcomes. It advanced Hammer’s goal for science education at Laurel Ridge. It taught Georgia Tech researchers how to explain their work to school children. And it opened the eyes of elementary students to the excitement of scientific research.

Hammer is the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) coordinator and teacher for gifted students at Laurel Ridge. She has dedicated her career to getting young children excited about mathematics and science. “Part of my mission at school is to expose all of the kids to science in as many ways as I can,” she said. “I refused to have our fifth graders staying behind, missing out on the hands-on experience the other kids were getting. So I decided to bring science to the school.”

Kostka came with graduate students Will A. Overholt, Boryoung Shin, and Xiaoxu Sun and undergraduate biology major Kyle Sexton. At Georgia Tech, one research focus in the Kostka lab is biodegradation of oil in the oceans, including oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. Kostka and his students study how marine microbes break down oil, how fast the breakdown occurs, and what factors affect the process. Their goal is to learn enough to direct the management and cleanup of contaminated systems, such as the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The beach they brought to Laurel Ridge resembled those sullied by the environmental disaster.

One of Hammer’s goals is for Laurel Ridge to be  STEM certified. The process requires the school to have community and industry partners. To fulfill this requirement, Hammer has been inviting researchers from Georgia Tech, including her husband, School of Biology’s Brian K. Hammer.  

According to the Georgia Department of Education, STEM-certified schools offer an integrated curriculum in STEM “that is driven by problem solving, discovery, exploratory project/problem-based learning, and student-centered development of ideas and solutions.”

To doubters, who may think such a program would be too much for elementary-level students, Tracy Hammer would disagree. “I believe we underestimate elementary school children and their abilities and interest levels when it comes to science,” she said. “The more we offer, the more they want to learn, and the more questions they ask.”

The Georgia Tech researchers engaged the fifth-graders in activities they named “Oiled Beach,” designed by Beth Kostka, wife of Joel Kostka, and a teacher Renfroe Middle School, in Decatur. Working in small groups of six to eight members per group, the school children modeled oil spills, counted bacteria, discussed Gulf of Mexico ecosystems, and watched oil-eating bacteria at work.

“The children were really engaged, had fantastic questions,” Overholt said. “They seemed to really enjoy the two hours we spent with them.”  

Seeing the students’ thirst for knowledge and ability to learn was an eye-opening experience for Overholt.  “The kids were so excited about things that my peers and I take for granted,” he said. “It was very rewarding to see kids so curious about the world around them. I also think it is great practice to talk about our science at the fifth-grade level and still be able to communicate what we do.”

Through these activities led by research scientists, Tracy Hammer moves closer to her goal of getting Laurel Ridge STEM-certified. “When we expose our budding scientists to the world and the possibilities it holds,” she said, “then we can say we are truly doing our jobs as educators.”

She hopes Joel Kostka will return and that other Georgia Tech research groups would visit Laurel Ridge throughout the year.

“I will do it again,” said Joel Kostka. “The kids were very perceptive. I learned that kids as young as those in fifth grade can really understand the oceans and the implications of oil spills. Those kids have a lot to offer.”

Although the “beach” they had did not come with sun and ocean and waves, the children had a great time. “When the others returned from Tybee,” Tracy Hammer said, “the kids who stayed behind were the ones bragging about their experiences.”

Scott Smith

Student Assistant, College of Sciences


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