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By Kara Mankeshare:

Fostering the Next Generation of Citizen Scientists

The "Day in the Life of the River" program connects Long Island students, teachers, and environmental experts for hands-on exploration of local ecosystems

On a brisk autumn morning at Veterans Beach in Mattituck, a small group of high school students gathered around a net teeming with aquatic wildlife. Their task: identify and record the numbers and sizes of the squirming creatures—which included eastern mud snails, common shore shrimp, and mole crabs—before releasing them back into the Peconic Estuary. 

Twenty feet upstream, their classmates sketched the layers of sand, pebbles, and rock in a core sample—a cylindrical slice of the river bed, collected by pounding a tall clear tube into the sediment along the shoreline—while others placed sticks in the mud to mark the ebb of the tide.

These Mattituck High School juniors and seniors were among the 1,740 elementary and high school students from across Long Island who participated in the annual “Day in the Life of the River” event this autumn. The program has grown rapidly since its launch four years ago, now deploying students from 37 school districts to sites along the Carmans, Nissequogue, and Connetquot Rivers, as well as the Peconic Estuary, to conduct field research into the health of river ecosystems.

“This program has just captured everyone’s imagination,” said Melvyn Morris, special programs manager for the Office of Educational Programs at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, who helps coordinate the program. “Kids love it, teachers love it, they say, ‘this is the best thing I have done since I have been teaching.’ It’s just a fun thing to get out there and see.” 

Learning in the Field

The event grew out of Brookhaven Lab’s Open Space Stewardship Program (OSSP), which seeks to foster environmental education and stewardship by connecting teachers with local environmental groups. “We wanted to design educational opportunities that would fit within a teacher’s curriculum and that would get kids out into the local environmental to collect some data and begin to act like citizen scientists and do authentic research,” said Morris, who also oversees OSSP.  

Inspired by a similar program in upstate New York, where citizens gather at different sites along the Hudson for a day of river study, Morris partnered with Melissa Griffiths Parrott of the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission and Ronald Gelardi of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to launch the first “Day in the Life of the Carmans River” in 2011. The event is now jointly coordinated by Brookhaven Lab’s Portal to Discovery, the Central Pine Barrens Commission, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Suffolk County Water Authority, and teams with environmental organizations from across the island

As part of the “Day in the Life of the River,” students spend a day at river sites in their local communities, where they work alongside environmental experts to collect data on the biological, chemical, and physical characteristics of the local ecosystem. Students gather the same basic information at each site, including surveying flora and fauna, measuring the acidity and dissolved oxygen levels in the water, and noting the temperature and wind speed. The data they collect is uploaded to an interactive online database, where it is freely available to teachers, scientists, town planners, and the public.

“It’s not like the students are taking a one day field trip and going to the beach and coming back and that’s the end of it. This is an ongoing contributing effort where they are collecting real data. They really are scientists,” said Morris. 

Knowing that they are making a real contribution to their communities and to science can make a big difference in student learning, teachers say.

“[The students] were so excited because beforehand we watched a video of other scientists working in the field, and then they looked at me like, ‘that’s what we’re going to do?’ So they just realize that it is real scientific work and they are excited to do it. It actually keeps them on task better knowing that, because they see the value in it,” said Sarah Maine, a science teacher at Cutchogue East Elementary, who brought fifth graders to the Suffolk County Marine Environmental Learning Center to work alongside volunteers from the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. This was her second year with the program. 

“They already know a lot,” said Janine Ruland, a biology teacher at Mattituck High School, who led the group of students at Veterans Beach. “But what I really want them to walk away with is, when they come to the beach, hopefully after today they will just look at it through a different lens. Gain an appreciation of it, and a sense of responsibility to maintain it or make it better.” 

Compiling the Data

Students not only learn the techniques of collecting the data at their local site, with the data from all of the participant schools collected on the website, they can also look at trends across geography and through time.

“My students will also look at the data from last year, and I do a follow-up with them in the spring,” said Maine. “So we’ll come back to the same location in the spring, we’ll repeat all of these same tasks and then do the fall and the spring comparison with them as well.” Maine added that she also has her students map the salinity and wildlife numbers recorded by their peers at different locations along the Peconic.

Melissa Griffiths Parrott, who helps coordinate the event, says that the data has already provided interesting insight into major ecological events, such as Hurricane Sandy and the Peconic Estuary fish kill.

“We did our first Day in the Life of the Carmans before Sandy and were able to compare the salinity levels before and after, and they were higher after, and the biodiversity of the bay was richer as well,” Parrott said.

“The town supervisors are also very interested in seeing the data from their districts,” she said. 

Repeat Customers

Kimberly Scheer and Nina Lentini, seniors at Mattituck High School who participated at Veterans Beach in 2014, returned to the site this year to photograph the event for their school. 

“It was nice to see a hands-on approach and apply what we had been learning in the classroom to what we see in real life and in our community,” said Scheer.

“It was also really cool because we weren’t the first class to do it,” Lentini added. “It’s something that you do every year, and it is something that all the kids get together to help out with.” 

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy.  The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.  For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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