Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saturday Stream Monitoring

It was a chilly Saturday morning, with temperatures in the 30s, and the first Saturday in a very long time without an early morning hockey game or two.  Was it the perfect morning for a sweet greenmomster to let the family sleep in and surprise them with a breakfast of whole wheat waffles covered in fresh fruit and organic whip cream?  Au contraire!  I woke the family up, told them to put on their jackets, and get ready to wade in ice-cold water – we were going stream monitoring!

To the quiet hum of children moaning and complaining, we drove off to help out with the search for benthic macroinvertebrates (large bugs and other animals without backbones that live on the stream bottom) in one of our local streams.  I chose a stream that I knew was in our local watershed.  A watershed is an area in which all water (rain, snowmelt, etc.) runs into the same stream or river.  Any water that people in my neighborhood use to water plants, rinse off the driveway, or wash a car can eventually end up in this particular stream (see Friends of Accotink Creek).

In order to survey the stream, you need people to hold the net and people to “dance,” or stir up the stream bottom to catch any invertebrates that come swimming away.   Then, the group takes a look in the net and counts all of the various critters.  High biodiversity, or variety in the types of animals we see, is one indicator of a healthy stream.  The good news is that the kids actually enjoyed themselves (heh, heh, I knew they would!) and learned a little something about their local environment.  The bad news is the lack of biodiversity in the stream.  How can we help get our streams healthier?  Decrease use of pesticides and fertilizers, plant native plants because they need fewer chemicals than non-natives, and fix any oil or antifreeze leaks in your car.

Activities like this one are happening throughout the country – a quick search of your local area will turn up the schedule of activities that anyone can join.  These activities are great for a number of reasons.  First, kids really see the fun side of science.  Instead of sitting in a classroom, listening to the teacher or reading a textbook (both of which are important activities), kids are out in the stream, churning up water, and counting critters.  They get to see the scientific process at work.  Second, we all begin to see our role in protecting our local environment.  An interesting study in PLoS ONE by Ballouard, et al (2011) showed that the internet seems to be making our children aware of charismatic, exotic animals (like tigers), at the expense of knowledge about local species.  Kids and adults are starting to lose touch with their local environments and their role in protection of that environment.  I see this phenomenon all the time in my classroom; students can tell me about animals in the rainforest, but they can’t tell me 5 bird species we might find outside the classroom window.  The third reason this is a great activity is that we’re contributing to “citizen science.” More and more, everyday citizens, as opposed to professional scientists, are making valuable contributions to data collection.  I used citizen scientists in my dissertation research.  Without my more than 50 volunteers, there’s no way I could have surveyed over 100 butterfly gardens each week for 2 years!

You can sleep late some other day!  Get out and enjoy the environment in your own backyard!

Click on photo to see "stream dance" video

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