Outside of Class, Students Learn About River Ecosystems

  • Fort Cherry Elementary School fifth grader Jacob Laurick looks at plankton he collected from Pittsburgh's Three Rivers while on a RiverQuest excursion. Photo: Ashley Murray

  • Fort Cherry Elementary School fifth grade science teacher Cindy Baker and student Mike Maga look for macroinvertebrates in river mud samples during a RiverQuest excursion. Photo: Ashley Murray

  • Mark Permigiani, a fifth grader at Fort Cherry Elementary, looks at a mayfly nymph he found in his sample of river mud during the RiverQuest excursion. Mayfly nymphs are pollution intolerant. Photo: Ashley Murray

June 21, 2013

Fifth graders from Fort Cherry Elementary board a boat along the banks of the Allegheny River.  They’re here to apply what they’ve learned in science class to the real world--the real world being the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio rivers.  This is one last major dose of science before heading to summer vacation and then off to sixth grade.

The excursion is led by the nonprofit RiverQuest.  The boat is a floating science lab for school kids from the region, says Linda Willhide.  She’s one of five RiverQuest educators on board today.

"I think it’s very important for them to realize it’s not just water," Willhide says.  "There’s things living here.  And, that ecosystem being healthy is great news for us because we get our drinking water from these rivers."

Throughout the day, the students test oxygen and pH levels, scoop up river mud to find the macroinvertebrates living at the bottom, and skim plankton off the river’s surface.

"We’re fishing for plankton to observe, and they like to live at the top of the surface," says fifth grader Jacob Laurick.  He didn't know that Pittsburgh's three rivers contained plankton.

"I thought they were only sea animals, so this is an early learning experience for me," Laurick says.

After he caught the plankton with the help of a RiverQuest teacher, he also had the chance to view it through a microscope.

"It looks like algae connected to each other but not a whole lot, it’s like in a straight line," he says.

Cindy Baker, the students’ science teacher, runs around excitedly, snapping pictures of her students pulling up mud and water samples. She says the fourth and fifth grade years at Fort Cherry Elementary are spent learning about watersheds, microworlds and ecosystems.  In her classroom, she’s taught the kids to make an ecosystem in a bottle, and even brought in local pond water for the kids to study. The school is located about 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

"We’re a very rural area.  You look out the window, you see cows in the field. Lots of farms in the area, lots of Marcellus Shale drilling," Baker says.  "You could look out from the school property and you can see a well."

She said she hopes that by learning the importance of the rivers' health, her students will understand the worries adults have about water pollution. The students measured the rivers' health by identifying types of bugs living in the waters. Students looked for and found critters on the river that are intolerant of pollution, including mayfly nymphs.

Several parents tagged along as helpers including Mary Ann Maga, who says this trip will teach her son even more about ecosystems.

"This is amazing, just the whole education factor, I mean we have good science teachers, and this just helps accent what they’ve already been going over all year," says Maga. "I'm glad I could be here to see it."

Baker says she feels inspired to incorporate more water testing and sampling in her classroom next year.