Bobby Burkhart
Washington County Public Schools, Maryland

Which is the healthier aquatic ecosystem, Springfield Run or the Potomac River? This is the question that will greet biology students at Williamsport High School (WHS) during the first week of the new school year. Students will spend most of the first marking period collecting data and building their understanding of ecosystems to produce an evidence-based answer to this question. In order to provide students with the research experiences necessary to “figure out” this initial “phenomenon” of the school year, we have created a research area beside Springfield Run, on the campus of Williamsport High School.

In the early summer of 2021 about 30 students, teachers, custodians and administrators, with leadership from biology teacher Bobby Burkhart, cleared the plants and brush from a wooded area next to Springfield Run. Mr. Burkhart used a hand saw to remove some invasive honeysuckle bushes from the area. Most of the work consisted of removing fallen branches and cutting back the undergrowth. A small trailer of brush was removed when the job was finished. During the 2021-2022 school year students in technology classes at WHS built wooden tables/benches for the outdoor classroom. School maintenance personnel graciously volunteered to mow the area during the school year.

All biology classes visit the outdoor research area during the first week of school to make observations of the stream and the surrounding watershed/riparian area. Students are also shown videos of the Potomac River, located about a mile from the school. These videos include both above water and underwater footage from the Potomac River near Williamsport. The outdoor research area is revisited numerous times during the first 6 weeks of school. Students collect and analyze macroinvertebrate populations, analyze water samples, and apply the concepts of ecosystems and watersheds they are learning in class. During this time, biology teachers collect macroinvertebrates and water samples from the Potomac River to be analyzed in the classroom lab. From these experiences students develop evidence to help answer the question about which ecosystem is healthier.

After analyzing the physical data, students use evidence from aerial photographs on the USGS StreamStats site to identify land use issues in the broader watershed that could impact our stream. As a final assessment, students write a scientific argument based on the evidence they have collected to answer the initial question posed during the first week of school. Students also propose explanations about how human behavior could be affecting the quality of the Springfield Run ecosystem. These outdoor studies enable us to meet the MD Environmental Literacy Standards by providing all of our students with a “Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience” (MWEE).

There are plans to expand access to our research area this summer by cutting new trails along Springfield Run and through the surrounding woods. The trails will be cleared with the same hand tools, push mower, and weed eater used to clear the initial research area. The goal is to provide students with safe access to the natural ecosystem, while having very limited impact on the ecosystem. Our outdoor research area is also used as an outdoor classroom for a variety of students and classes. Our developing outdoor research area provides WHS students with opportunities to experience the joy of nature and perform real science research on our own school campus.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation. (2017). An educator’s guide to the meaningful watershed educational experience (MWEE). MWEE Guide | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Kuo, M., Barnes, M., & Jordan, C. (2019, January 31). Do experiences with nature promote learning? converging evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship. Frontiers.

Moulding, B., & Bybee, R. W. (2017). Teaching science is phenomenal: Using phenomena to engage students in three-dimensional science performances consistent with the NRC Framework and NGSS: Organizing student science performances using 5E and gather, reason, communicate instructional sequences. ELM Tree Publishing.