Ex-stream Science: Exploring Local Watershed Health
Heading outdoors lets kids experience real-world applications of their classroom learning.
On a sunny, breezy, and unusually cold spring morning, a parade of 120 sixth graders, their teachers, and chaperones snaked its way from their middle school, through the neighborhood, to a local stream. Clipboards, test tubes, nets, camp tables, and a variety of other equipment tagged along. The students had spent the previous weeks learning about watersheds in the classroom, and now it was time for a morning of hands-on science fun.
Shivering and shouting, the kids broke up into groups and began rotating through stations supervised by the adults: chemical, biological, physical, and photography. At each stop, the student teams worked to collect data that they would use to evaluate the health of the stream once they returned to the classroom.
Healthy Water = Healthy Plants and Animals
At the chemical station where I was assisting as a parent volunteer, the students were eager to test six different characteristics of the water: temperature, turbidity, pH, oxygenation, and the levels of phosphates and nitrates. The students would use the results of these tests to determine what types of plant and animal life can survive in the stream. In other words, how healthy is the stream?
There was something for everyone to do: different kids collected water samples in test tubes, carefully added and dissolved chemical tablets when needed, timed reactions, interpreted results, and recorded data. I was impressed at how well prepared the students were for the fieldwork. They knew how to properly dissolve tablets in water samples and were very careful to pour their water samples into wastewater collection bottles rather than back into the stream.
Future Scientists at Work?
When I looked upstream, I could see groups of students busy measuring the depth and width of the water, taking photographs of erosion and wildlife, and carefully collecting and identifying invertebrates, which were, of course, gently returned to the water.
While they were mostly focused on the assignment and tasks at hand, there was still some good-natured splashing and daredevil rock hopping. Shrieks of delight and disgust filled the air as kids found enormous worms, crayfish, and other creepy-crawlies. While there were plenty of wet feet on that chilly morning, there was only one true casualty at our station—a waterlogged stopwatch.
Head Outside to Engage Kids in Hands-on Science
Do you have any natural water sources near you? As the weather warms, try adding a splash of fun to your science explorations! Check out these ideas for suggestions on water-focused science experiments that might make for a great outdoors science project for the summer:
- Using Daphnia to Monitor Water Toxicity: In developed areas, rain and irrigation water can run off of sidewalks and pavement into local watersheds. As the water flows, what is it collecting? Explore how runoff affects aquatic life in local streams and ponds.
- Froggy Forecasting: How Frog Health Predicts Pond Health: Have an affinity for amphibians? Assess the health of a local pond, stream, or lake by collecting and checking the health of the frogs that live there. Of course all frogs will be carefully returned to the water!
- I'm Trying to Breathe Here! Dissolved Oxygen vs. Temperature: Plants and animals need oxygen to survive. Test a body of water near your home to see if it contains enough dissolved oxygen to support life.
- Something's Fishy About That Fertilizer: Fertilizers that we use for gardening or farming eventually can end up in the local watershed. Discover how this can affect the plants and animals in an aquatic environment. Are some fertilizers better than others?
- Too Much of a Good Thing? Study the Effect of Fertilizers on Algal Growth: Fertilizer runoff can cause too much algae to grow in ponds and lakes, which depletes water oxygen levels and harms aquatic life. Grow your own algae using different concentrations of fertilizer to model this environmental issue.
Whether you're planning a trip to a lake, or just stomping in a rain puddle, talk to kids about water——where it comes from, where it goes after we use it, and how humans can affect its quality.
Whether you are looking to pair an outdoors investigation with a great book or just looking for science-themed reading choices for your students, the following titles are ones to consider for students interested in environmental science, zoology, and more:
- Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard
- The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs: A Scientific Mystery
- The Case of the Vanishing Honeybees: A Scientific Mystery
- Eye to Eye: How Animals See The World
- Beetle Busters (Scientists in the Field Series)
- Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion (Scientists in the Field Series)
- The Frog Scientist (Scientists in the Field Series)
- Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Honor (Awards))