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  • By Melissa Luetje M.S.

Education in the Field Kennebunk High School Macroinvertebrate Study of the Batson River, Kennebunkp

A connection to place, or the outdoors, is essential in environmental science education. How can one learn about the complexity and beauty of the environment without being outside and experiencing the environment first-hand? Experiential learning is enduring for students as it places science concepts learned in the classroom in an authentic context. Students that participate in "real science" by getting dirty and taking data contribute to a larger body of knowledge that benefits their local and scientific communities. This rich experience can be fostered utilizing community partners in an ongoing relationship, thereby providing continuity in instruction and programming.

It is difficult to make time and space for experiential, placed-based learning opportunities within the constraints of the academic year. After all, a specific curriculum must be taught and assessed, and field trips require time, resources, and context. The high school environmental science curriculum does just this. It is dynamic and allows the delivery of applicable concepts within the framework of units, setting the table for authentic field experience that is vital and underutilized in secondary science education. Place-based learning is "an educational approach that uses all aspects of the local environment and emphasizes hands-on, real-world learning experiences. Research has shown that place-based education has increased student achievement" (Sobel 2004).

Kennebunk and Kennebunkport are part of the coastal community in Maine. Kennebunkport Conservation Land Trust is an active community member of the school district, encouraging the recreational and educational use of its land trust. These lands are home to diverse ecosystems, including freshwater and marine ecosystems. While studying aquatic ecosystems and global climate change, it was easy to create a place-based learning opportunity for environmental science students at Kennebunk High School.

The Batson River is part of Kennebunk's local watershed, traveling through farmland and urban areas and under roadways, eventually emptying into the Gulf of Maine at Gooch's Beach. What a community does directly affects the water quality of the river and, thus, the Gulf of Maine (GOM). The water quality of rivers is essential to preserving an ecosystem's biodiversity, and human impacts can negatively affect ecosystems. Before entering into this unit of study, students needed to answer the questions: 1) What is a watershed? 2) How can we determine the health of a local river? 3) What are bio-indicators and how can they be used to determine water quality? This investigation aligns with the Next Generation of Science Standards' (NGSS) specific disciplinary core idea LS2 – Ecosystems, Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, as well as most crosscutting concepts and all seven scientific and engineering practices. The specific NGSS standards addressed were HS-LS2-2 and HS LS2-6.

Day 1: Leia Lowery, the Director of Education for the Kennebunkport Conservation Land Trust, was an invited guest speaker. She gave a presentation [1] that outlined the Batson River Watershed, its origins, and its pathway, which eventually empties into the Gulf of Maine at Goose Rocks Beach. The local economy is dependent upon summer tourism. She posed a question: Does an influx in population in the summer have an effect on the Batson River? Students then used their knowledge of aquatic ecosystems and field methodology to help answer the question. Using an inquiry approach, the students designed an investigation to determine the water quality of the Batson River.

Day 2: Students watched a YouTube video [2] from the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension (UWCE) on volunteer macroinvertebrate sampling and were given an article [3] from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (Maine DEP) on macroinvertebrate sampling in rivers and streams as a reference. Students decided to use a combination of sampling methods based upon the video and article. Students were put into collaborative groups, where they eventually compared the results of two sampling methods: one using D nets as outlined by the UWCE video and the other constructing and using rock bags as modeled by the Maine DEP article. As a class and in small groups, students discussed possible research questions appropriate for rock bags and D nets. Research questions were developed with guidance and teacher feedback. An example of a research question is as follows: "Does the use of two sampling methods in the same aquatic habitat (riffles) give the same health rating for the Batson River?"

Day 3: Students were given materials [4] to design and construct rock bags based upon their research question.

Day 4: The first field trip to the Batson River was taken in mid-May to place rock bags in their various habitats. Rock bags were left in place for two weeks.

Day 5–7: Students worked collaboratively in their groups to begin work on a scientific paper [5] that would report the results of their research question. Each student was responsible for researching, writing, and peer editing sections of their group's paper. Scientific paper outlines [6] were used as models, and students were encouraged to research exemplars in accessible science journals.

Day 8: The second field trip to the Batson River took place in early June. Rock bags were retrieved, and D-net sampling methods were employed at each habitat using the methodology set forth in the UWCE video. Data was collected, and biotic indices were calculated.

Day 9: Data was analyzed in the classroom, then added to and referenced in appropriate sections of scientific papers.

Days 10–12: Students continued working on collaborating on their scientific papers. PowerPoint presentations [7] were created to communicate their research question and findings to an authentic audience in lieu of a final exam.

This entry point into fieldwork has been used with another teacher and additional environmental classes this year [8]. The use of a community partner, DEP, and citizen science protocols has given students an authentic learning experience grounded in place-based and inquiry-based science education. Not only were they scientists in the field but they were able to draw valid conclusions from their collected data and share the data with fellow students, KHS faculty and administrators, and the Kennebunkport Conservation Land Trust.

An ecological approach, which is holistic rather than reductionist, gives an entire scope of the ecosystem when solving real-world problems such as the water quality of a local watershed and its broader impacts. These learning opportunities are multi-factorial and include all stakeholders. Utilizing this approach to science education, students participated in contributing to community-based research rather than discussing impassively in a classroom setting. Students learned protocols and used scientific practices. Students then collected data, wrote a scientific paper, and effectively communicated to an invested and authentic audience.

Place-based education is now a standard part of Kennebunk High School's environmental science program. The Kennebunkport Conservation Land Trust will be utilizing student data and conferring with appropriate organizations with regard to testing and monitoring results. A long-term study over several seasons is planned.

Sequence of Instruction, Resources, and Links

  1. Introductory Presentation by Leia Lowery, and Lesson 1: Intro to Macroinvertebrate Study

  2. University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension (UWCE) on volunteer macroinvertebrate sampling

  3. Maine DOE article

  4. Lesson 2: Rock Bag Construction, Lesson 3: Setting out Rock Bags

  5. Lesson 5: Writing Batson River Scientific Paper, Lesson 4: Rock Bag Retrieval

  6. Student Presentation

  7. 2016-17 IB ESS Approach

  8. 2016-17 Alternative Education Narrative Sobel, David. "Place-based education." Connecting Classrooms & Communities, The Orion Society, Great Barrington, MA (2004).


Bio & Contact Information

Melissa Luetje, Kennebunk High School, Kennebunk, ME KHS

H: 207-865-5544 89 Fletcher Street

C: 207-807-8859 Kennebunk, ME 04043

A volcanologist wannabe and a high school science teacher in the here and now, Melissa Luetje is dually certified in physical and life sciences. A graduate of the University of Southern Maine with a BA in geology, and an MS in Teaching and Learning, she has taught at Kennebunk High School in Kennebunk, Maine, for 14 years. She has a zeal for experiential learning and extending the opportunity to all levels of students. With three international student service trips, introducing NXT Robotics to self-contained science students, starting a garden and greenhouse program for alternative education and regular education students, and writing and receiving grants, she is constantly looking for ways for her students to experience, learn, and apply science outside of classroom walls. She is proficient in curriculum design and implementation.

She and her husband live in Freeport; they met in a geomorphology class at USM and honeymooned in Iceland. They plan family vacations with their three daughters around their love of rocks and took their family to Nova Scotia last year for fossil and petrified wood collecting. Summers are spent on the waters of Casco Bay in the Gulf of Maine. Melissa's love for the Gulf of Maine permeates many facets of her life.

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