Investigating Urban Ecosystems with Woonsocket High School Students
By Jeff Swanlund, education specialist
Over the course of the school year, Mrs. Miguel and I have led a dozen field studies with her freshmen students at Woonsocket High School. Together we are studying the health of Cass Pond which is located right next to their school building. The goal is to answer the question, “How healthy is our urban ecosystem?” The students are focusing on three main variables to study: water quality, biodiversity, and vegetation. At the end of the year and after a school years’ worth of data collection, the students will analyze the data they collected, configure results, and draw conclusions to better understand the health of Cass Pond. Woonsocket High School is one of three schools to be funded by the BWET grant for these field studies projects. The other two schools include Central Falls High School and 360 High School in Providence.
The three stations for field studies testing are water quality, biodiversity and vegetation. The water quality station is led by Mrs. Miguel and her students collect a sample of water directly from Cass Pond to run water chemistry test. The water monitoring tests include temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH, and nitrogen, phosphate, and ammonia levels.
The biodiversity station, which I lead, focuses on the variety of animals that inhabit Cass Pond. We focus on vertebrate species, including birds and fish that we can observe and identify, as well as invertebrate species. To collect macroinvertebrates, students take turns using dip nets to scoop up the substrate and look through to find any creatures hiding within. If they find any macroinvertebrates, they are deposited into separate containers where we can identify the species and count the number of individuals of each species collected. Our group also uses a macroinvertebrate identification key to identify which species are tolerant of pollution and which species are intolerant. This helps to show if this habitat is heavily polluted or not.
The vegetation station has been co-taught by several Save the Bay instructors including Jeannine Louro, Letty Hanson and Reagan Dutton. Students at this station started the school year observing zonation of plant species distributed around and in Cass Pond. They also collected several plant species and had to identify them. Once identified, these plants were pressed and laminated and turned into a field guide for reference. Now that the seasons have changed, this station would, under normal circumstances, focus on the distribution of vegetation, and using hula hoops as quadrats, we would determine the percent coverage of invasive versus non-invasive species. We look forward to Rhode Island students return to school, so we can complete one of our goals of hosting a habitat restoration day to remove any invasive species of plants growing in Cass Pond.
Historically, the three schools come together to present their data and findings. It is a great way to get students more comfortable with communicating science and it also allows students to meet other environmentally-driven students across the state. By conducting these studies at three different locations, we are able to get a better idea of the health of Narragansett Bay from its freshwater tributaries all the way down to the head of the bay.
Although this is the final year of our BWET grant, we hope to continue working with our respective schools in a similar capacity to continue to provide them with curriculum related to the hands-on studies of their urban ecosystems.