Liverpool Elementary fifth-graders got a chance to act like real environmental scientists on Thursday at Onondaga Lake.
Under the direction of Liverpool Elementary Science Center Helping Teacher Alex Becerra, about 40 kids tested water, examined microscopic plankton and discussed the ramifications of introducing non-native species into a habitat.
“The question of the day was, is Onondaga Lake a living lake?” Becerra said. “This gave them a chance to look at the lake as a complex thing. It affirmed for them some things about the lake, and it gave them a chance to do some hands-on work to get a better understanding of it.”
The project was funded by several grants, including a mini-grant from the Onondaga Lake Partnership. Several local groups also provided resources.
There were four different stations in which kids got to perform hands-on activities that helped them to understand the nature of the lake and the creatures that inhabit it: the floating classroom, the yacht club, the shoreline and the marina “B”-wall (the pier behind the Salt Museum). The students were split into groups and rotated through the stations throughout the day. In addition, staffers from Carpenter’s Brook Fish Hatchery were on hand with an exhibit.
Site One: Floating classroom on the lake
Groups on the boat, led by Becerra, were involved in hands-on water testing. During these activities, they learned about sampling water at different depths to determine what kinds of species could live at those depths.
“We looked at dissolved oxygen levels and temperature at 20 feet and 30 feet deep,” Becerra said. “Then we could determine what kinds of fish would be able to live in the lake.”
The students on the boat also discussed Secchi disks, an interactive exercise that demonstrates how to measure the clarity of the water and light penetration. A Secchi disk is an 8-inch disk with alternating black and white quadrants. It is lowered into the water of a lake until it can be no longer seen by the observer. This depth of disappearance, called the Secchi depth, is a measure of the transparency of the water. Transparency is an indicator of the impact of human activity on the land surrounding the lake.
“Unfortunately, we ran out of time, so we didn’t get to actually work with the Secchi disks,” Becerra said. “But we did talk about them and what they meant.”
The floating classroom groups also got to do a “plankton tow,” casting a net and dragging in plankton from the lake. The specimens collected were then viewed under a microscope at the yacht club.
Most importantly, kids on the floating classroom got to work with real scientists from Quantitative Environmental Analysis Labs. The classroom boat rendezvoused with QEA’s boat, where techs showed them the equipment they use to perform the same kinds of exercises the kids were doing.
“It was really neat,” Becerra said. “They got to see that what they’re doing has real applications.”
Site Two: Yacht club
Dr. Ed Michalenko from the Onondaga Environmental Institute discussed the food chain with the students at the Onondaga Lake Yacht Club. Here, the kids examined the plankton collected by the plankton tow under microscopes and learned that the organisms are at the bottom of the food chain.
“He talked to them about the ecosystem of the lake,” Becerra said. “They learned about the positives, as well as how pollution affects it.”
In addition, the yacht club provided photographs and information about the programs offered there, including youth sailing lessons and stewardship projects.
“The yacht club had displays talking about invasive species in the lake and how they’re trying to keep them out,” Becerra said.
Site Three: Shoreline
Students working with environmentalist Jack Gramlich along the shoreline also discussed invasive species, as well as species native to Onondaga Lake and its watershed. Gramlich took his groups for a walk along the shoreline, pointing out those species that belonged and those that didn’t. He discussed the consequences of introducing a non-native species to a lake both to the water itself and the native species already inhabiting the lake.
Students on the nature walk along the shoreline also got a chance to see several different creatures that inhabit Onondaga Lake, including a water snake, an osprey and a great blue heron. Gramlich also pointed out native and non-native plant species.
Site Four: Marina “B”-wall
Students might have had the most fun at the fourth station, where they were each given a fishing pole and some bait and instructed to catch what they could. Under the direction of Ray Besecker from The Friends of the Carpenter’s Brook Fish Hatchery, boys and girls alike cast their lines and reeled them in. Several students caught fish, proudly showed them off to their friends and threw them back into the lake.
A smashing success
Becerra said the project was a success, thanks in large part to the contributions of the effort’s supporters.
“We had so much help in putting this together,” Becerra said. “I really want to mention ARISE of Central New York. They support people with disabilities, but they also provide opportunities for people to get out and get involved with recreational activities. They provided the boat and the captain for the floating classroom. It was really great.”
Other supporters were the Upstate Freshwater Institute, the Syracuse Sail and Power Squadron, QEA Labs, Onondaga Yacht Club, Onondaga Lake Park Marina and the Onondaga Lake Partnership. All contributed to what Becerra called a terrific learning experience for the students.
“We all know the value of hands-on science,” he said. “It’s got a motivational effect, and it helps kids to remember what they learned so much better. All of these things they did in the field, they can’t be done in the classroom. It was really important to get them out here.”
Becerra said he’s hoping to open up the project to the rest of the district next year. He said that five elementary schools participated in a similar operation last fall, though they couldn’t actually go out on the lake.
“The next step is to take the five groups onto the floating classroom,” he said. “Then we’ll grow it from there. I’d love to see all 10 involved.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.