Water sampling makes a big splash with students

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Daejah Ware (second from left), 8; Samantha Toth, 8; and Brooke Honeycutt, 9, from Angela Essenmacher’s fourth grade class watch while environmental educator Leah Derby (left) tests a water sample from the Detroit River.

Sunday Times Newspapers

TRENTON – At Lake Erie Metropark, 9-year-old Nicholas Seals peeks into a microscope to view a scorpion.

“It had pointy things besides its mouth,” he said.

Instead of spending Oct. 25 in their classroom, fourth graders from Trenton’s Hedke Elementary School learned about the water and ecosystem of Lake Erie and the Detroit River as part of the Great Lakes Education Program, GLEP.

“Our focus is to look at water quality and assess the health of the river and lake on any given day that we go out,” Patrick Livingston, program director, said. “That is our primary objective, and to inspire young people to consider how they can help to keep the Great Lakes and the Detroit River in good shape and supporting life.”

The students’ two-part hands-on field trip, which was funded by the Hedke Parent Teacher Organization, took place in an outdoor learning lab at Lake Erie Metropark in Brownstown Township, and later on the Detroit River and Lake Erie while aboard the Clinton, a school ship which operates out of Trenton’s Elizabeth Park Marina.

At the Lake Erie Metropark learning lab Natalie Ray, an environmental educator with GLEP, taught the students about plant and animal life in a marsh, including the food chain, and showed them everything from cattails to live animals, including a turtle and snake.

Ray told the students, who were apprehensive about the live snake she was holding, that they were excellent for mouse control, and farmers liked the fact that snakes ate rodents that could damage crops.

“So there are some ways that animals like this (snake) are great,” Ray said. “We have to have things like this.”

The students learned about other animals while handling fur pelts, a large turtle shell and a preserved fish head.

Jan Van Kirk, another onshore GLEP environmental educator, showed the students how to view tiny aquatic creatures under solar-lit mirrored microscopes.

“You’re going to see some of the strangest stuff since you got out of bed this morning,” Kirk said. “Actually, you might feel like you’ve got X-ray vision eyes because you’re going to be able to see through some of their bodies.”

Nine-year-old Alexis Eidt was most surprised by antennae that she saw on the pond bugs and by how big and 3-dimensional they looked under the microscope, while in the water sample without magnification they looked like “little squirms.” She said she saw a dragonfly nymph, a mayfly nymph and a lesser water boatman beetle.

John Billadeau, 9, said he identified about 11 different pond bugs. He said the coolest things were a dragonfly nymph, another bug with three tails and six legs, and a beetle.

Nine-year-old Brooke Honeycutt was surprised to see a freshwater shrimp and the way it moved under the microscope.

“It had antennae thingies sticking out all over its body and six legs and I don’t know how many tails it had,” she said.

Eight-year-old Samantha Toth added that the freshwater shrimp was see-through and “just really weird.”

Parent chaperones Amy Raupp and Michelle Toth, as well as bus driver Megan Buganski looked under the microscopes along with the students to view the unfamiliar pond bugs.

The students then boarded the Clinton, which cruised south on the Detroit River to Lake Erie before turning around and heading back to Trenton.

While on the boat the students were in four groups that rotated to eight different stations to learn about many things, including knot tying, navigation, marine terminology and water sampling.

Oohs and ahhs were heard as the students gazed at real-time images shown on a television screen from an underwater video camera towed along the bottom of the river channel.

They ran their fingers through river bottom mud-like sediment brought onboard by a mechanical sampling scoop, and they examined different seaweed brought up in the sample.

They also saw objects floating in the Lake Erie and Detroit River water samples enlarged under a magnifying lens.

The students watched as tests were conducted on vials of water samples to check for pH, more commonly known as a measure of the alkalinity or acidity of a solution. They also tested for dissolved oxygen and other chemicals present in the water.

Leah Derby, a GLEP onboard environmental educator said the students most enjoy seeing the river bottom sediment that is sampled from the stern of the boat, and the chemical tests that are conducted on the water samples.

She said that many students think that fish breathe water, not oxygen.

“It seems to be one of the biggest surprises that fish breath oxygen, and that their gills are what gets oxygen out of the water for them,” Derby said.

Livingston said that adults who accompany students are often surprised by the water clarity, since many remember a time when they couldn’t see more than two feet through the water, and now they can often see ten feet down. He noted that water clarity doesn’t correlate with cleanliness, since invasive species like zebra mussels are filtering the particulates in the water.

“The invasive species issue has certainly changed dramatically the ecosystem of the Great Lakes and it’s still doing so,” Livingston said. “We are always concerned about additional species coming in… as long as the salt water ships are not controlled for ballast (water)… that’s a political problem.”

The program, which Livingston said is in its twenty-first year, is sponsored by Sea Grant of Michigan and the Michigan State University Extension Program.

For more information visit their web site at www.glep.us, or contact Steve Stewart at (586) 491-6000 or by email at stew@msu.edu.