Eighth-graders monitor quality of Patapsco River

June 13, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

How clean is the Patapsco River?

Ask a student on the Environmental Action Committee at Sykesville Middle School.

These youngsters can discuss turbidity, pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrates and phosphates in language any nonscientist could understand.

"Everyone is an expert on what is going on," said Eric Conway, their science teacher, after the students reported their findings to the Sykesville Town Council last month.

Mayor Kenneth W. Clark said the students did a better job of explaining water quality than state officials who have addressed the council.

"The students did all the research on their own," Mr. Conway said. "I could have fed them but they didn't need it."

The 40 eighth-grade students have been monitoring the water quality of the river, which borders the southern edge of town, for several months on their own time.

A $1,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust -- in response to a proposal written by Mr. Conway -- paid for equipment and training.

Mr. Conway conducted an initial lab session to teach the young scientists how to use test kits, collect data and perform bio-samples on the water in keeping with the Environmental Protection Agency's assessment protocol.

The project has generated 381 hours -- and still counting -- in community service for the children. Students have also lobbied town officials and written to newspapers.

"The work has taught them that each person can make a difference," Mr. Conway said. "At 13, they often think the environment is in a terrible mess and there is nothing they can do."

Noelle Chandler, one of the 13-year-olds, said she has learned the value of saving the Chesapeake Bay.

"I never realized how everybody affects the Chesapeake, even those who live 40 miles away," she said.

The students hiked to the river after school Wednesday and waded into the chilly waters with seines, test tubes and collection screens.

"The river is doing well and is pretty healthy except for nitrates," Noelle said.

Nitrates, from fertilizers used on farms and lawns, are frequently higher in spring. The chemicals, lethal to aquatic life, pose one of the greatest threats to the water quality of the bay.

"Nitrates make algae grow," said Conor Glover. "Algae uses up oxygen in the water."

Nitrates numbered three parts per million during the sampling.

"High, but not as high as it has been," said Jason Shapiro. "It should be one, but it's good for the time of year when everyone fertilizes."

The dissolved oxygen level was high, Jason said. "That shows in the animals we are catching."

One student proudly displayed a tiny water penny, "a most sensitive organism which only survives in nearly pristine water," Mr. Conway said.

Stephanie Hanna removed a small water bug from her damp shoe and identified it as a beetle larva.

"You can't be squeamish if you sign up for this group," she said.

Within an hour, the students had recorded their results and given the river another "healthy" rating.

The group will try to continue monitoring this summer and plans to teach testing techniques to next year's eighth grade.

Mr. Conway said he hopes other county schools will begin similar programs and share information. He also praised parents who helped with the project.

"Parents don't sit on the banks and chaperon," Mr. Conway said. "They get their feet wet, too."

Carol Rankin, Rob Rankin's mother, said she caught the students' enthusiasm early.

"They get out there in the mud, pick up bugs and record everything," she said.

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