Bloomington students perform creek checkup
BLOOMINGTON — “If you’ve never picked up a crayfish before, watch carefully.”
It wasn’t exactly a normal order to hear in a high school class. But then, Amanda Figolah’s AP Environmental Science course is no ordinary class.
Bloomington High School South students followed Figolah out of the classroom and crossed the street, walking to Clear Creek. Wearing wading boots, armed with water testing kits and clipboards on which to record data, the students sampled water and caught aquatic critters (excuse me, “macroinvertebrates”) to gauge the health of the stream.
Using their kits, students tested for nitrate or phosphate, for the presence of E. coli and for other indicators of water health. It’s part of the class’s hands-on approach to environmental science, but getting students into the stream also has a bigger focus: participation in a citizen science project.
After gathering their data, Figolah said, the class will upload their findings to the Hoosier Riverwatch database, which is free to explore for anyone who is curious or concerned about the health of local water sources. If people have data, and can understand what’s happening in local water for themselves, then they can decide what to do to protect it or improve it, if needed.
After gathering their data, the students write comprehensive reports about Clear Creek and what they discovered in their tests.
“They have to think about how scientists weight data, so which pieces of data are important in how you would rate a water source, and then they make recommendations for its use. Should we be fishing and eating the fish? Should we be recreating in this water?” Figolah said. “That basically gives them real evidence without a true right answer, so they can use critical thinking skills.”
Usually Clear Creek’s chemical tests come back pretty clean, Figolah said, and the students found plenty of freshwater critters whose presence indicated good water health. They spent the last portion of class hunting for crayfish, yelling in delight when they found specimens under rocks and caught them up in their nets. Seven or eight of the crayfish went into a plastic tub until the end of class. Figolah demonstrated the best way to pick up a crayfish by pinching lightly just above its legs, and how to flip the crayfish over and determine its sex. Then, before students walked back to class, they let their specimens go.
Aside from the value of hands-on learning, and aside from the value of contributing open-source data for other local scientists, spending a few class periods outside — wading in streams, catching crayfish, enjoying the clear weather and fall sunshine — is fun. Figolah said students tell her all the time that the periods spent collecting water outside are their favorite lessons.
The project creates an “intrinsic connection with where they live,” as do its follow-up activities, she said.
After water collection, the class always comes out for a cleanup day to get rid of trash that might have fallen into Clear Creek. Eventually, Figolah plans to adopt the stream through the city of Bloomington Utilities Department’s “Adopt a Stream” program. In that case, the students would come out to do testing and cleaning more often.
“If we don’t connect to the natural world and we don’t understand it, we won’t work to protect it,” Figolah said. By getting her students outside and involved with the natural world in their own backyards, she hopes to encourage those connections.