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Is This Local Stream Healthy? Tolland 6th-Graders Investigate

STEMLabTollandPhoto: Tolland 6th-graders partnered to gather scientific data as they worked to determine whether a nearby stream was healthy.

EASTCONN’s Mobile STEM Laboratory has been making the rounds among schools across northeastern Connecticut this spring, recently stopping at Tolland Middle School, where 6th-graders got a chance to investigate the health of a local stream. 

“For students to be able to conduct real-world experiments right here in their own Tolland ecosystem is wonderful,” said Tolland 6th-grade science teacher Stephanie Cassidy, as she watched students test water samples from a stream next to the school soccer field. 

“We are asking one guiding question today: Is this local watershed healthy? What better way for students to figure that out than to extend their classroom and conduct experiments out here,” she said, gesturing to the foot-deep but swiftly moving water, which was lined by trees and dense brush. A chorus of birds sang overhead, which Cassidy’s wide-eyed and attentive students quietly observed from the banks of the stream, clip boards in hand. “Are these birds possible evidence of a healthy ecosystem?” she asked. 

More than 180 Tolland 6th-graders conducted field experiments on the stream, using the EASTCONN Mobile STEM Lab and its on-board equipment in May. An EASTCONN grant through the SUEZ Foundation helped defray the cost. 

“Observe everything. Use all your senses, except taste. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t draw conclusions yet,” Cassidy told students, as they carefully dipped water from the stream into clear beakers. 

 “Our students are exploring their environment and connecting NGSS principles to their lives and to their own learning. That’s what NGSS is really all about,” Cassidy said. NGSS is an acronym for Next Generation Science Standards.

“I think this is really fun,” said Sydney, a 6th-grader, as she made her way down a roughly cleared path to the stream. “We get to test things on our own, and find out our own information. I like that.”

When asked what she’d discovered, Jada, another 6th-grader, rattled off the data that she’d collected from her water samples, including its turbidity, PH and temperature. She theorized that the hot sun had probably affected the accuracy of her temperature readings. She also reported enthusiastically that one of her fellow students had actually found a damsel fly larva swimming in his water sample. “Yeah,” she said, nodding her head. “This is fun!”

After collecting and testing their water, students headed up a long hill to the school, where the Lab was parked. They sat at workstations and continued their investigations, using probes and other on-board scientific instruments. The sounds of enthusiastic young voices filled the Lab, as they discussed and recorded their findings with lab partners. Each student also got to observe samples through the Lab’s electron microscope. 

“The great thing about the Lab is that kids are using the technology — not just hearing about it or reading about it in a book,” said Cassidy. “To be able to incorporate all their learning from the last three months into a hands-on experience just goes above and beyond.”

So, what were their conclusions? Was the watershed healthy?

EASTCONN Science Specialist and Mobile STEM Laboratory Coordinator Dr. Stacey Williams-Watson joined Tolland teachers to challenge students’ assumptions. Watson asked, “What is your definition of healthy? Is this watershed healthy for animals? What about human consumption?” 

After considering all the evidence, most students concluded that the watershed was healthy, based on their observations of the stream’s circulation, the abundance of nearby plant and animal life, and the stream’s physical and chemical properties.

“These terrific Tolland students engaged in real scientific study, and they did an excellent job,” said Williams-Watson. “Their teachers did a great job of preparing them. It was a very good week.”

To learn more, contact EASTCONN’s Williams-Watson at swatson@eastconn.org, or EASTCONN Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Dr. Toni Ryan at tryan@eastconn.org.