by ALEXANDRA RETTER
A tan, grooved object the size of a large rock sat balanced in fourth grader Archer Schell’s hand. He enthusiastically showed it to the teachers and fellow students who stopped by his display board. When asked what it was, he excitedly explained that it was an elephant tooth with a family story behind it.
The tooth was his mother’s. It had been passed down to her by her father, who had gotten it when an elephant spit it out while he was at a zoo as a child. The elephant’s handlers had said he could keep it. The tooth inspired Schell to appreciate elephants and research them for a recent elementary school project fair at Winona Area Public Schools. The fair celebrated its return this year in a modified format after being cancelled for the 2019-2020 school year because of the pandemic. Through the fair, third and fourth grade students chose a topic to study, then learned about completing research and sharing information with others.
Students researched a wide range of topics — including volcanoes, minerals, the history of the NFL, sharks and dance — and presented their research at the fair.
Fourth grader Logan Robison, who completed his project on chinchillas, appreciated learning that there are two species of the fluffy, very soft rodent. He also enjoyed completing a map for his display board to show where chinchillas live in South America. Fourth grader Morgan Maine completed her project on America’s first ladies, and she appreciated learning about Dolley Madison having a portrait of George Washington removed from the White House and taken to Maryland during the War of 1812 before British troops set the presidential home on fire. The first ladies, her favorites being Madison and Michelle Obama, inspired her to acknowledge that even if one is not in the White House, one still “can do great things.”
Schell enjoyed learning that elephants eat between 220 and 440 pounds of food and drink about 30 gallons of water a day. “I liked how fun it was to do the project,” he said. Third grader Avery Scultz completed her project on the solar system, and she appreciated learning about scientists trying to find life in places other than Earth and the different sizes of the planets.
The students also agreed that they appreciated sharing what they learned. Scultz said she learned that presenting is “not that scary.”
Students’ chances to learn through the fair were interrupted during the prior academic year. Fair organizers cancelled the event last year due to the pandemic. “This year, we’re excited to be back,” Elementary Gifted and Talented Teacher Cari Rustad said.
The fair typically takes place at Winona Middle School and features student projects from each of the district’s elementary schools. Community members usually may attend the event. Because of the pandemic, the community could not attend, so students presented their work at their particular elementary schools to their teachers and fellow students this year.
Third and fourth grade students may choose to take part in the fair. If they sign up, they decide on a topic. They then meet with Rustad beginning in January to learn how to complete research, make a display board and present information to others. Rustad also shared videos with students’ teachers this year so students could further learn by viewing the videos in their classrooms. Once students finish that learning process, they complete their projects on their own before bringing them to school on the day of the fair.
Rustad has been involved with the fair for three years, and she remembers when her own children participated in it as elementary school students about 20 years ago. “It’s always been continuously something that the children really enjoy,” she said. “It’s one of those things we haven’t wanted to take away because … they get to choose their topic completely on their own.”
With the pandemic limiting the opportunity for community members to see and hear about students’ work, high school students in Winona Senior High School’s Tech Nest program videotaped interviews with each student participating in the fair. The high school students will now put together videos for the district’s website so community members and fair participants’ family members may learn about students’ projects. “I’m really thankful to be able to have them help us out with that this year, because it’s the extra piece we needed,” Rustad said.