During the summer of 2014 sixteen science teachers from all around the Great Lakes region spent a week on board the U.S. E.P.A ship R/V Lake Guardian on Lake Erie as part of the Shipboard and Shoreline Science Workshop. Sponsored by the Center for Great Lakes Literacy, Ohio Sea Grant, Pennsylvania Sea Grant, and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, teachers were connected with scientists in first hand explorations of the ecology, geology, and bio-geochemical processes of Lake Erie.
Fifth grade middle school science teacher David Murduck was introduced to many ideas for his classroom and field activities from his experience on the research ship:
Although I knew the experience on the R/V Guardian
was going to be amazing, I never dreamed that the workshop would have such an impact on my students. Towards the beginning of the school year my class spends a lot of time learning about the importance of qualitative and quantitative observation. This year my students were able to apply their understanding of metric measurement while learning about the Great Lakes. Students were engaged in an activity where they had to use yarn to outline, label, and organize the shorelines of the Great Lakes to scale. After graphing the shoreline metric distances, students compared the total shoreline distances of the Great Lakes to the U.S. shoreline along the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Students then compared and contrasted the size of the Great Lakes to the total volume of water each lake holds, the metric mass of commercial fish caught, and the human population surrounding each Great Lake. This activity enabled me to reinforce the importance of metric measurement as we used metric rulers, triple-beam balances, and graduated cylinders in class. This also set the stage for in-depth discussion of the Great Lakes and the problems they face.
As the year progressed, students learned more about the Great Lakes, and specifically the Lake Erie watershed that they live in. Students learned about research that scientists aboard the R/V Guardian were completing. Research included a study of native and invasive species by Ruth Briland of The Ohio State University, a study of the presence of plastics by Sam Mason from State University of New York, and a study of chemicals and E. coli bacteria by Steve Mauro from Gannon University. This led to a better understanding of the importance of water quality. Macro-invertebrate studies and the use of water quality monitoring equipment lent for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allowed real-world application as students studied water in local tributaries of the Lake Erie watershed.
Follow-up allowed students to complete individual in-depth research related to invasive species of the Great Lakes. This information was presented with the use of visual projects such as PowerPoint, dioramas, or posters in class.
Students then applied what they had learned throughout the year by participating in an important stewardship project. With a unique partnership between our school and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, students planted native oak trees for the park. Park ranger John DeMuth came to each 5thgrade science class and discussed how the invasive Privot plant forces out native plants along the Cuyahoga River. He explained that native plants have deeper root systems that hold the soil more securely and slow erosion of the river banks. He also explained that unlike the past when pollution was the main
problem in the Cuyahoga River watershed, invasive species are now the real concern.
In culmination, with the help of high school horticulture students from the Trumbull County Technical and Career Center and park rangers from the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, my students learned teamwork as they used gloves, eye protection, and loppers supplied by the national park to cut and stack the invasive plants along the river bank. National park employees later use controlled use of herbicides on the stumps to kill the plants. What an amazing year!
The recent contamination of drinking water in Toledo, Ohio brought the risks of algal blooms center stage and raised serious concerns for the future. Questions on everybody’s mind are what are toxic algal blooms, what causes them, and what can we do? Michael Brennan, IISG’s water quality outreach specialist, has some answers:
Regional scientists have been concerned about algal blooms like the one we saw a few weeks ago for some time. Its unique conditions make western Lake Erie particularly susceptible to algae blooms, both toxic and non-toxic. Warm temperatures, shallow, slow-moving water, and excessive nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations create optimal conditions for algae to thrive during summer months.
Let’s step back a bit. Algal blooms are essentially overgrowths of algae triggered by excess concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus carried in stormwater runoff from lawns, leaky septic systems, golf courses, and agricultural fields to nearby waterbodies. The severity of a seasonal algal bloom is directly related to annual rainfall accumulation and the number of severe rainfall events
Non-toxic blooms occur all over the Great Lakes. Occasionally, the algae associated with blooms—a cyanobacteria—releases a toxin known as microcystin. This is the toxin responsible for contaminating the drinking water of over 500,000 people in the Toledo area.
But even non-toxic algal blooms are harmful. When rapid algal growth dies off, decomposition sucks oxygen out of the water, depriving freshwater organisms of the oxygen needed to survive. Decomposition also slowly releases nitrogen and phosphorus back to the water column, setting the stage for the cycle to start again next season.
There are no quick fixes in Lake Erie or any of the other lakes. But there are things we can do. Better stormwater management through green infrastructure is key. Unlike impervious surfaces, the plants and trees used in green infrastructure can absorb water and filter out pollutants before it reaches a waterbody.
Individuals can help prevent algal blooms as well. Homeowners and gardeners can adopt natural lawn and landscaping practices that conserve water and reduce stormwater runoff. Most of these practices are simple and cost-effective, like applying nitrogen fertilizer only in fall, removing weeds by pulling and hoeing, and limiting watering to the mornings and evenings.
**Photo courtesy of Ohio Department of Natural Resources