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Citizen Scientists

At Harley, we are lucky because of our proximity to Allens Creek, which runs along the south side of our property next to the Microfarm, Winslow Natural Playground & Outdoor Learning Center, and our nature center across the bridge. Generations of students have created boats from natural materials to “sail” down the creek, done their best to ice skate on it when it has frozen, and generally enjoyed impromptu fun along the banks and in the water.

Our students in all divisions also utilize the creek as part of their studies. This natural resource helps bring active learning to life.

by Beth Bailey

July 13, 2022

Lower School: Fun and Science in the Creek

Recent Harley School retiree, Tony Cinquino, P ’06, ’10 (Lower School 1979–2021), created several beloved traditions in our Lower School, including the Grade 2 Creekwalk, now in approximately its 30th year. 

Elisa Sharman, Grade 2 faculty member, spoke with Becoming Magazine recently about this hands-on, minds-on experience.

Allens Creek, Home of Elusive Crayfish

Early in the year, all of Grade 2 ventures into Allens Creek on the lookout for crayfish. From the beginning this project was developed to activate learning on several levels:

  • A community-building exercise for the new classes each year
  • Observation of the natural world
  • Gaining a deeper understanding of care for the Earth
  • Using scientific skills

Listening to the lively banter, splashing, and laughter when students “hit the water”, it’s easy to feel excitement and wonder along with them. After all, it’s not every day that rubber boots are donned, fishing nets are handed out, and a quest begins. In this case, it’s the quest to find, collect, and count crayfish.

Every year is different, defined by creek conditions: Has there been much rain or was the summer fairly dry? Is the creek level  high or low? A high creek means the crayfish, natural hiders, are tougher to spot. Low creek level exposes any “man-made” additions to the creek. Lots of rain adds more branches and natural debris to the mix. Each year the conditions are different.

In addition to counting the crayfish, students use their scientific skills to weigh, measure, and compare them. This year, for example, there were fewer crayfish caught, but they were bigger than usual. What, the students wondered, could be the cause? They hypothesized perhaps fewer crayfish meant there was less competition for food, so they were able to grow larger. We now have decades of data about the crayfish in our creek that we can share with other scientists.

Students actively explore and start to understand their impact on the environment, making connections based on what they observe. They might notice glass or even a piece of a retaining wall in the creek. This evidence that people are not taking care of the creek as well as they should helps them to understand they have a responsibility to each other and the world. 

Multidisciplinary? Yes, Please!

The creekwalk is just one part of the streamlife unit, which involves math, ELA, art, and science. The unit begins by learning about fish life cycles, complete with a trip to Powder Mill Park’s fish nursery, followed by reading the tall tale “Jangles” by David Shannon. This story is about an enormous fish who derives his name from the many fishing lures embedded in his mouth that “jangle” as he swims. The story’s lesson: respect nature and  let it be. Students begin to realize why we need to leave no trace and why we should only observe. 

In art, Teacher Ell shows students Japanese fish printing utilizing Gyotaku—a traditional form of Japanese art that began over 100 years ago. By applying sumi ink to one side of a freshly caught fish, then covering the fish with rice paper and rubbing it to create an exact image of the fish, they could prove their catch really happened. Although students don’t actually use dead fish (they used to!) to create their rubbings, they love making the prints.

This creekwalk makes a lasting impression on students, and years later they remember their time in the creek. We hope this decades-long tradition remains active for years to come. After all, taking care of the Earth will always be important, and what better way to reinforce this than with a trip to the creek?

Middle School: Tackling Climate Change: One Piece of Trash at a Time

When Grades 5/6 science begin their science unit on climate change, they learn about the impact of plastic pollution on the environment. This is one of the most pressing issues our oceans face today, and if current trends are allowed to continue, the amount of plastic entering oceans is set to double in the next ten years. (source: The Ocean Cleanup)

As Middle School students become more accustomed to observing our natural world, they begin to notice the impact humans have on the environment. Unfortunately, one of those impacts is litter. 

In order for children to conceptualize the human effect, they clean up litter surrounding the creek and are often astounded by what they collect. The trash around the creek has included food packaging and wrappers, styrofoam take-out containers, aluminum cans, water bottles, clothing, plastic bags…and the list goes on. The amount of litter collected in just an hour fills three to five large garbage bags. One year, a student found an old tire abandoned where the side of the road meets the creek. 

It can take up to 1,000 years for plastic to biodegrade. Recycling plastic bottles is the responsible thing to do, but only one out of five plastic bottles are recycled in the US. Annually, two million tons of plastic bottles end up in US landfills. (source: Healthy Human Life)

Once students have conceptualized the amount of litter on our own school grounds, they understand the importance of reducing and managing their own waste.

Upper School: Keeping Track of Watershed Health in the Region

Upper School students in AP Environmental Science conduct Benthic Macroinvertebrate Biomonitoring each year in local streams.

Plunging In

Stream monitoring is an important component of understanding the general health of a watershed. Historically, stream monitoring incorporated only water quality analyses; however, the inclusion of biological monitoring and assessment of physical habitat is critical for the understanding of stream and watershed health. This provides insight into the community of organisms living in the stream, as well as identifying any anomalies. 

Harley students follow the monitoring protocols of the Finger Lakes Regional Stream Monitoring Network to conduct comparative studies of the streams throughout the Finger Lakes region. The data is uploaded to the FLI website to enable direct access to regional data. In the long-term, this data will provide valuable insights about the health of local streams that feed into the Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario, and an overall assessment of Finger Lakes water quality.

The highlight this year was conducting Benthic Macroinvertebrate Biomonitoring, an important method of determining changes in biological communities over time. It is commonly used in stream ecology to help determine the health of the organisms that live below the water’s surface and it is also an indicator of relative water quality. Macroinvertebrates are organisms that do not have a backbone (invertebrate) and are generally visible to the naked eye but can be caught in a 500 μm (0.5 mm) net or sieve. This term often refers to aquatic macroinvertebrates, which includes snails, clams, crayfish, worms, and insects.

Students were busy collecting, identifying, and tallying a number of each different species of aquatic invertebrates. The numbers and kinds of organisms were then analyzed to show whether (and the extent to which) Allens Creek is impacted by pollution. 

This year the survey indicated that the area is “slightly impacted.” This means it has maintained fairly good water quality. However, numerous sources of pollution in the watershed may soon threaten the health of the creek. Some areas identified through monitoring are showing early signs of variable human impact. Student-gathered data can help keep track of the trends in watershed health — right in our “backyard.”