Saturday, August 15, 2009

Our last day... all business

Welllll.... mostly business.

We began firming up plans for our grant proposals: Fauzia and Steve's ideas for stream monitoring projects; Terry and Deborah's plans for baseline surveys to use in planning for school construction; Bryan's thoughts on doing a stream restoration; Amy and Dana's desires to do something more with conservation gardens; Lee's plans to build a nature trail; Eric and Jeanine's different ideas for using real data from from their studies in math classes....

It wasn't all work; we ate ice cream (thank you, Lee!) and fooled around with hissing roaches... Bryan thinned his herd, so Lee's kids will have some creepy classroom pets this year! And Gene and I were ambushed by everyone... thanks for the presents and the sweet card (sniff...)

So, where are we now? We have a big list of "to-dos" for the next months! We'll be contacting local government offices to get information on existing monitoring stations and projects. We'll be looking at how our projects fit in with bigger school and community plans, and begin writing lessons that will cover standards and use best practices. We'll begin to decide what new equipment we'll need to do our projects. And I'll be here at the Museum, your "go-to" girl, helping with resources as we start writing proposals.

Just not this week. I'm on vacation!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Day 4: Nature in the City

(Or, “another day, another macroinvertebrate”)

We loaded up and headed off deep into the wilds of… Alexandria.

Traffic wasn’t too bad! We made decent time getting to the Cameron Run, a 4th order stream in an industrial area with a LOT of human impacts. Think runoff and flooding, channelization, sewage and pollutants (ick.) But many of our fishies and bugs are resilient: even in these rather cruddy conditions, some organisms thrive.

Our first survey of the day was at a section of the Cameron Run between two railway bridges. The lower bridge has a definite Planet of the Apes post-apocalyptic feel, complete with overgrown vine-girded tunnels.

By now, everyone knows the routine. We suited up, grabbed gear, and hopped into the Cameron Run.

We electrofished.

We found lots of fish… there were many larger fish in this stream.

We measured and recorded physical and chemical characteristics.

We searched (and searched) for macroinvertebrates; we found lots of worms.

Oh, and we hung out under a bridge.

After visiting the animal shelter to avail ourselves of the restrooms (and to make goo-goo eyes at the kittens) we hopped into the truck and the van and headed for our second site, the 3rd-order Holmes Run.

This creek is in a park, but still has many of the same issues as the Cameron Run. There are sewage and storm drain outfalls dumping into it. Upstream, the banks are clad in concrete, turning the streambed into a giant culvert. The water here is smelly and the rocks are coated with algae.

We did shocking-ID-counting-measuring-recording-collecting. There are environmental problems in this waterway, but some animals can live here. This shallow, cobble-strewn creek just can’t support a very diverse community. We found just a few species of small fishes and inverts (Gene and I have found this pattern each time we’ve sampled this site!)

After packing up the gear for the last time, tired and grubby and hungry, we went to my favorite restaurant, El Tipico, for a late but well-appreciated lunch.

Terry is afraid that the starving Deborah may eat her...

Jeanine is having a cheese malfunction...

And Amy is just glad that she could wash the amoebas off her hands!

Another evening of talking and planning and sharing resources and stories… but for some reason we were all so exhausted that we headed off to bed by 10:00. Maybe it has something to do with staying up until after 1:00 the night before…?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Day three: in the creek! posted by Steve Fenchell

The morning began with a quick dash for coffee at the local Starbucks. After some light conversation about our personal teaching positions we headed out at approximately 8:30 am. We met with Kaitlyn and Chris from the SCA at the National Park, for the second day, to continue our monitoring of the pristine streams found in Prince William County.

Shortly after we drove to our first stream, which was a level two. We began electrofishing and exploring for more macroinvertebrates. We found many organisms, thanks to Gene helping us improve our techniques.

From this stream, we gathered for a brief lunch then we were quickly out to explore our next stream.

Mid-day we arrived at our boundary stream and were greeted by quite a potent odor...
After a short walk through a thorny "path", we turned around... thanks Gene... to find a reasonable opening to the stream. We were already suited up and began trekking through the slippery stream trying to balance ourselves and catch the many small fish getting zapped.

Splash!!! Jeanine took a spill, but luckily she was quickly back on her feet with the electroshocking pack. We found about 14 species of fish, switched out the waders and began digging for more macroinvertebrates. Many small critters, until Lee came across a Helgrammite that would give anyone the creepy crawlies... straight out of a 50's horror film.

After packing up, we headed back to the hotel to sort and ID. We were all able to preserve some representative inverts to show our students, then we cleaned up, and headed out for dinner. We decided on a small Thai restaurant, but were surprised with a "Closed Due to the Economy" sign. We walked to the Japanese restaurant next door, and were in for a great treat... Lee was the champ again as he caught some flying shrimp right in his mouth (others were close).

After dinner we decided to take a look at the used-book store, remember your 3-Rs! After a few great finds (I bought a collection of essays about global water issues and another Michael Pollan book) we headed back for a group discussion and a little social time!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Day Two:first day in the Field. Dana D'Agostino posting

Our first day in the field saw us piling into the caravan of vehicles, headed for Prince William Forest Park. We pulled off next to the stream and gathered our gear; waders, dip nets, pH meter, clipboards and the backpack electroshocker.

We trooped through the woods to our first test site; a third order stream. The weather was hot and humid, with a few clouds in the sky. We all made sure to cover ourselves with bug spray and sunscreen. Gene and his crew began our expedition by working downstream, shocking and collecting the fish.

Summer's group trailed behind, collecting physical parameters including stream depth, pH, stream width and stream flow. We recorded our data and moved downstream, collecting at three separate sites. While this site is considered "pristine", we made note of debris that littered the stream, including glass and plastic on the banks.

Everyone was fascinated by the variety of fish caught in our nets. Using the dip nets, we traipsed through the water, swishing and swirling, attempting to gather as many macroinvertebrates as we could. Specimens were transferred to collection jars, to be identified later.

Following a short break, we switched teams and began surveying a second order stream. It was interesting to note the difference in diversity between the two streams. Fewer species were found in the second order vs. the third order. The stream was also narrower and the flow was a bit slower.

By 12:30, we were ready to call it a day and head off in search of food. We went to Wegman's and indulged ourselves in the great variety of choices; sushi, pizza, subs, Chinese and Thai buffet, panini, salads, etc. Once our hunger was satiated, we piled back into the vehicles to return to our hotel.

In the breakfast room at the Holiday Inn, we laid out our tools to ID our macroinvertebrates. Pans, dissecting scopes, forceps and probes along with several liters of isopropyl alcohol. Specimens were sorted into trays and then identified with the aid of the dissecting scopes and Gene's expertise.

Dinner was at the local Mexican restaurant. Everyone enjoyed the tacos, burritos, enchiadas and salsa. Our waitress appeared to be a neophyte; she seemed flummoxed by the large group of people and kept running back and forth fetching ice and drinks and things she forgot.

Back to the hotel to listen to our guest speaker; Laura Grape from the North Virginia Regional Comission ( She spoke to us about global warming and land use with an emphasis on sea level rise. How will residents deal with a projected rise in sea level of up to 5'? Will insurance rates rise so much that no one will be able to afford to live on the coastline? Will properties be abandoned as more and more coastline is gobbled up by the rising water levels?

After a verrrrry long day, we all bid each other good night and headed off to our respective rooms. Another long day awaited us in the morning and we needed to catch up on our sleep in order to be ready for more field work the next day.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Notes from Northern VA: Deborah and Terry reporting

A picture (or 5) really is worth a thousand words. Wish everyone could have seen the look on our faces when Dr. Maurakis (Gene) told us about the cautionary tales of those "brain eating amoeba" - Naegleria fowleri - that inhabit low level waters at temps of approx 78 degrees. Nice thoughts for our outing tomorrow and our introduction to electrofishing in Prince William Forest Park. Those pictures will certainly tell a story.

Today though we arrived (settled into our swanky new digs) and began to answer some of the aforementioned questions as to why we are here:

“I’m going to Woodbridge because I want to hang out with other teachers…” The best way to get to know each other was finding out what we already do by way of environmental studies and green practices personally & professionally. Steve takes the "less is best" approach by living in a one room studio where he has no trouble remembering to turn off the lights when he leaves a room & where he can't water a lawn b/c he doesn't have one.

“…and experience the natural world in a new way…” Today this meant viewing a turtle or catfish in a tank in one of our participant's labs (the rest of us can only dream of such a tank and lab in our schools) or eating lunch in the setting of a concrete courtyard? Where's the nature? Oh, we must be it. “I’ll spend a lot of time stuck in traffic…” Not today actually - everyone seemed to stay home b/c of the heat “and thinking about how I could use this mark and recapture lesson…” Can they eat the population? Only if they're the Goldfish that come in a cardboard carton….

“Dr. M’s study will establish a baseline for climate change…” that might include how to warm up a classroom designed for 30-40 students w/ only 12 people in it? “and I’ll get help from Summer to develop a proposal for my own study…” like a grant for a lab like Bryan's in the CENS (Center for Environmental and Natural Sciences!) “I’ll learn about so many things: fish and invertebrates and stream characteristics and maps and human impacts and”….and the brain eating amoeba.

“The best thing about this project will be (stuff) I’ll take home…” such as a planimeter for measuring distances of streams on a map…”and meeting new people, and free meals…" off to a great start w/ an excellent dinner out at Macaroni Grill & conversation ranging from experiences w/ students in environmental sciences - to the human impact of folks like Octomom and the Duggars - to the finer points of living w/ grizzlies and navigating NOVA traffic. “I’ll get resources…” such as a laminated/field tested Insect & Crustacean ID Card… “and I’ll do things I’ve never done before!” Like put ink dots on both sides of very small navy and pinto beans.

Above all else today we met Summer Schultz & Dr. Gene Maurakis, two scientists who truly are dedicated to their altruistic cause of providing information about the effects of climate change on our inland waterways. To make the cause even more worthwhile, they are willing to engage us as teachers in providing the tools for a whole new generation to keep up their work. Do they know what they're in for? They say teachers make the most challenging students. Do we know what we're in for? My guess is not a clue, judging by the first class treatment we have received. Could it be they are making these first impressions so positive so as to ward off any further misgivings we might have about standing about in water w/ electroshock sticks while avoiding droplets of amoeba contaminated water as we flee flailing from the stream? Stay tuned to see what answers tomorrow brings.

Deborah Andersen & Terry Milton

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A picture is worth a thousand words

SMV is conducting a multi-year study of fishes and invertebrates. Yes, we’re collecting, identifying, and counting critters! But we’re also looking at the physical environment: water temperature, current, pH... all sorts of other factors that determine what critters live where.

OK, this is where I need to get a bit “wordy” to explain things. You see, one goal of this study is designing a mathematical model… basically, a computer program… that can predict what critters should be in a creek. Plug in your values for stream order, stream depth, etc etc… and wow, here’s a list of the fishes and inverts you’ll find!

Believe it or not, scientists get really excited about this type of modeling. A program like this could then predict how climate and ecosystem changes will play out in the future. In the midst of an epic drought? Tweak the input values for water temp and stream depth, and see what happens to your fish populations.

Of course, to build a realistic program, we need to look at data from more than one stream (we’re studying 21.) And we definitely need to consider how human factors (Storm runoff! Culverts! and dams! Oh my!) come into play. Which leads me, in my long-winded wordy way, to today’s pictures, courtesy of Google Earth.

Satellite view #1: half of our study sites are in this region

Satellite view # 2: and the other half are here!

Think we can get some good “human impact” data for our computer program?

Friday, August 7, 2009

“So, why are you going to Woodbridge….?” Or, what to tell your friends about your Field Study experience.

Between August 10 and August 14, 2009, ten brave Virginia educators will trek into the wilds of Northern Virginia with Dr. Maurakis and me. They’ll be participating in classes, labs, and field collections in streams and rivers… all in an effort to… well… do lots of things, actually. Check out this blog next week for pics and reports from the field. (No snow this time!)

In the meantime: for those ten intrepid pioneers who are having trouble explaining this project to friends and family, I have provided you with some possible answers to “So, tell me again why you’re going to Woodbridge for a week?”

Take your pick!

“I’m going to Woodbridge because I want to….”
a) learn how to design and conduct a research project
b) wear rubber pants in public… in a socially acceptable setting
c) hang out with other teachers and share ideas
d) experience the natural world in a new way

“I’ll spend a lot of time…”
a) in the water, collecting samples
b) stuck in traffic (this is Northern VA, baby!)
c) thinking about how I could use this “mark and recapture” lesson plan with my students
d) reminding myself “don’t put your hand in the water when the shocker’s on… don’t put your hand in the water when the shocker’s on…”

“This field study project is important because…”
a) I’ll be doing real science… Dr. M’s study will establish a baseline for climate change
b) I’ll get to work on my tan while I’m learning, oh, and we even get to watch some videos!
c) I’ll get help from Summer to develop a proposal for my own study
d) I’ll learn about so many things: fish and invertebrates and stream characteristics and maps and human impacts and….

“The best thing about this project will be…”
a) the scientific equipment, specimens, data, and technical knowledge I’ll take home
b) meeting new people, hanging out under bridges, and getting free meals for 5 days
c) I’ll get resources and materials to do some great work with my students
d) I’ll do things I’ve never done before!