What's in the Water?

Upper School environmental science students bring the classroom to life at Melvin Hazen Park, where their research just might improve water quality across the DC area.

On a crisp day in October, the students in Emily Boyer’s environmental science class venture out to nearby Melvin Hazen Park, where a local stream runs eastward into Rock Creek. They are there to do a biological survey of the water, a project that Sidwell Friends environmental science classes have been doing through the Audubon Naturalist Society since 1997. “Every fall, I take my students down to the stream,” says Emily. “We do a collection and interpret the data. And we look at what’s going on in the area, like the way the land is being used, to see if that affects what’s going on in the stream.”

The students’ goal is to collect macroinvertebrates, backboneless creatures like dragonflies and midges that are big enough to be seen without microscopes and easy to find in and around bodies of water like the Melvin Hazen stream. Not all macroinvertebrates are hardy enough to survive in polluted environments—and that’s where Emily and her class come in.

“Some macroinvertebrates are more sensitive than others to pollution,” Emily explains. “Based on the individuals that you find and their sensitivity levels, you can determine the health of a stream. We report the data we find to the Audubon Naturalist Society and the National Park Service, and then that becomes part of their database."

In other words, the discoveries that Emily’s class makes help ANS and NPS figure out how to push for changes in the management of streams around the DC area. “Experiments like this one give us the opportunity to intervene if an ecosystem is struggling,” says Tala Anderson ’18. “As people, we have a responsibility to pay attention to stream studies and alter our own behaviors to protect stream life.”

Tala was excited when she first heard about the project. “It sounded like a great opportunity to see and study firsthand the concepts we had been learning about in class,” she says. “I also thought it was really cool that our data would help monitor the health of Rock Creek and its tributaries.”

Sarah Baldino ’18 agrees. “I was really excited about how closely the class material tied into real-life issues with water pollution,” she says. At first, she worried she’d be a little squeamish when she came face-to-face with the macroinvertebrates, but she ended up surprising herself. “When I got to the stream, I actually volunteered to wade in and collect species myself!” she adds. “I guess I rose to the occasion and took a chance in hopes of expanding my horizons.”

The experience resonated with Sarah so much that she began taking a water quality monitoring class with ANS. “It’s been really fun,” she says. “Each week we learn about a different group of macroinvertebrates and how to identify them without the need for dichotomous keys. Once I complete the course and pass a test, I’ll be able to monitor in the area and submit my data to ANS. Having a role in aiding my area is what inspired me to take the course.”

For Emily, one highlight of the Melvin Hazen project is that it “gives students the opportunity to do real fieldwork and to understand how real data collection and analysis work.” It also makes them more aware of local issues: “When students can connect what they learn in the classroom to real-life environmental issues,” she says, “they are more inspired and motivated to bring about change in their community.”

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