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Budding biologists go into the field

June 12, 2014
By CELIA EVANS - Ecologist/Educator , Paul Smith’s College

Morning sun shimmers on the West Branch of the AuSable River for the start of the second annual Conservation Day at Intervale Lowlands, a 160-acre private nature preserve in Lake Placid.

A team of teachers, led by sixth-grade science teacher George Bailey and high school environmental science teacher Tammy Morgan, are bringing their students out for a day of experiential science activities that will bring their classroom studies to life and bring students into intimate contact with Adirondack ecology and ecologists. Lake Placid Advanced Placement Environmental Science students are paired with pods of sixth-graders as they make their way around the preserve to six different stations where teachers and an exceptional team of expert ecologists share firsthand experiences with stream fauna, mammals, plants, birds, amphibians and invertebrates.

I wander from station to station, reveling in the view and reflecting on the engagement of the students (big and small), and find George Bailey and his group on the back porch of the LEED-certified house with plant ecologist Jerry Jenkins. The group huddles around a picnic table on which jars full of twigs are arbitrarily placed. Jenkins, using the Socratic method, gradually gets the students to organize the twigs based on characteristics that might be used in a dichotomous key.

Article Photos

Photo — Larry Master
From left, sixth-grade student Gregory Suzanne, entomologist Ezra Schwartzberg, and chaperone Katie Morgan examine the contents of a sweep net.

"Let's get all the needle trees down at my end (of the table)," he suggests. While jars were being rearranged, he asks, "What are the leaves for?" After some shy silence, and rephrasing of the question from their smiling teacher who knows they have the answer, the students relax into a series of answers that demonstrate they understand the basics of light gathering and sugar making in leaves. Finally, Jerry's beautiful picture keys are dispersed to pairs of boys and girls, and they grab jars and wander off to identify the plants one at a time.

For Bailey, finishing a distinguished 30-year career as a sixth-grade science teacher, Conservation Day is part of a "watershed unit" he and team teacher Julie Weinstein developed 20 years ago. Over the years, the format of the watershed unit has varied, but it has always integrated the concept of a watershed with identifying and mapping them.

"This is nice!" Bailey says. "We get a lot of bang out of this day. This trip is the best organized event for the children to get a broad exposure to environmental science."

Weinstein shares her hope that being made to pay attention to little things, like the shapes of leaves, might lead to students being more mindful of nature and might just "spark a career path interest" for one of her sixth-graders. Stepping back even further, Bailey adds, "It has always been one of my goals to teach my students that they live in one of the last great places on Earth and that they should learn to apply the principles of stewardship to their local environment."

The stream sampling station run by Tammy Morgan and her students fits particularly well into the sixth-grade watershed unit. Morgan and Bailey have long realized the value of having the older students mentor the young. As I approach the river, Morgan is wading and looking for a sampling spot while her students are instructing sixth-graders on the dos and don'ts of wearing waders, and explaining the value of sampling these bottom dwelling river creatures.

"Bugs can tell you a lot about their environment," Lake Placid High School junior Cody Barry explains and then continues to talk about things like turbidity, bio-indicators and long-term monitoring for climate change.

This is the second sampling trip to Intervale for the high school students. To follow up this day, they will compare the stream and invertebrate data to that which they collected in the fall. It's impressive the way Morgan confidently leaves her students to the business of being role models and teachers to the younger students, while she tries to make sure there will be bugs to see in the next "kick" sample.

Just before they all get into the water, the blackflies become a teachable moment.

"So where are they coming from?" Morgan asks to begin a discussion about insect larvae.

After a brief introduction, it's time to get into the river.

"Somebody grab a net! Somebody grab a bucket! And we need a stick! Don't take if off a living branch!" the high school students remind their charges.

Judging from the time they put into working with Lake Placid Central School District teachers to organize and staff this event, it's clear that preserve owner and zoologist-conservation biologist Dr. Larry Master and ecologist-entomologist Dr. Ezra Schwartzberg are committed to ecological education and the community. Walking up to the invertebrate station, I come upon Schwartzberg and a young protegee peering intensely into the bottom of a sweep net. Suddenly, something flies away.

"Whoa! That was cool. We gotta go back to that spot!" says the entomologist.

"What was it?!" asks the excited sixth-grader.

Entomologist: "A cool parasitic wasp!"

Protogee: "What does it do?"

Entomologist: "It stings other bugs and lays its eggs in them!"

Protogee (appropriately): "Eeeeewwwww!!"

"This is my very favorite day of the year out here," Master confides as we walk between the invertebrate and amphibian stations. "I'd like to get more school groups out here in the future," he says and then adds with a doubtful smile, "but it might be hard to get this caliber of experts out here all together on more than one day a year!" I agree. Along with Jerry Jenkins, the team of ecologists includes Dr. Michale Glennon of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Dr. Nina Schoch from the Biodiversity Research Institute, Wendy Hall from the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge in Wilmington, Chelsea Radell from The Wild Center and Intervale intern Anastasia Dierna - not to mention Ezra and Larry. What a day! Environmental education at its finest!



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