New environmental tool empowers high school scientists

Survey tool helps environmental scientists keep an eye on pollution
By: | June 27, 2016

Biology students in 13 Howard County public high schools have a new tool to study the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

By using the survey tool, students help environmental scientists keep an eye on pollution and other factors that might harm the bay or its creatures, including Maryland’s renowned blue crabs. Howard County sits southwest of Baltimore, in the middle of the watershed. Its streams feed into the ecologically at-risk bay.

The tool, which lists organisms by type, is an illustrated one-page guide devised by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Students use it at selected stream sites to identify and log habitat features, such as if banks are undercut or if vegetation is submerged.

The tool is also used to track water quality and count the overall number of macroinvertebrates, those with a backbone that can be seen with the naked eye, in the urban ecosystem.

Then students analyze the data in classroom labs before passing it along to the Department of Natural Resources.

“What is particularly powerful is that when we have 13 high schools that are each doing their own little piece of the puzzle, we get a full view of the entire county, and that’s a pretty robust data set” says Mary Weller, coordinator of secondary science for Howard County schools.

The field experience, which is also supported by the Howard County Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental education organization, gives students a chance to ask relevant questions and analyze results, says Weller.

“This learning experience is very consistent with next-generation science standards where the students are engaging in the science and engineering practices in order to become proficient scientists” Weller says.

Last year, the data gathered was included in the larger Department of Natural Resources watershed database, a key assessment of the bay’s health.