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Stream Watch: Fifth-Graders Monitor Health of the Brandywine

By Amy Reynolds, Communications Specialist
This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of the Tower Hill Bulletin

Down at the Brandywine River with the rest of her fifth-grade science class, Kyleigh Peters ‘25 grabs a rock from the stream and carefully swipes the bottom to find macroinvertebrates. So far, her group has found two worms, a larva and a beetle, which they’re inspecting closely.
It’s the fourth time the fifth-graders have gone out to the Brandywine this year as part of Stream Watch, though it’s Peters’ first time looking for macroinvertebrates. 
Stream Watch has been done by the Delaware Nature Society since 1995, and fifth-graders at Tower Hill have been participating since 2001. Each class goes down to the Brandywine four times a year, and the students separate into four groups—a plant and animal group, macroinvertebrates group, water chemistry group and visual survey group—and switch their areas of study each time they go out to the river.
“Depending on the season, you’ll see different kinds of plants and animals,” Peters said. “I like looking at all the plants and animals because they’re very interesting because you don’t get to see them every day where I live.”
The data the students collect is sent to the Delaware Nature Society and is used to inform pollution control strategies and identify long-term trends while also educating local communities about pollution issues.
“It’s a hands-on experience,” said Luisa Sawyer, a fifth-grade science teacher who studied wildlife conservation in college. “We did the exact same data collecting in my high-level college classes, so they’re acquiring skills that are used by wildlife professionals. They get the exposure of actually doing something outside and really seeing the transformation of the stream throughout the school year. They get to really assess, ‘Well, it did snow and it did bring more water, which made it a little muddier.’ It’s cool to see the transformation of something, even though we don’t test it day-to-day.”
Participating in Stream Watch also helps students make the connection that their everyday actions can have an effect on the stream.
“I think it’s cool to just know what’s going on in the area around them,” fifth-grade science teacher Mary Hobbs Taylor ‘09 said. “Sometimes kids say, ‘Oh, [the Brandywine] is right by my house,’ and then I can talk about what happens if their dad puts fertilizer on the lawn and it runs down into the Brandywine, so it makes it very real for them.”
Both Taylor and Sawyer prepare their students for Stream Watch in the class period before, so students know exactly what their jobs will be. Sawyer said the nervousness right before they leave—and seeing the kids get hyper-focused—is her favorite part.
“That really intense focus is really exciting to see,” Sawyer said. “They are very serious about the work they’re doing, and I really enjoy how excited they get when they flip over a rock and find a salamander. They’re a little scared to touch it at first, but then they realize it’s OK to touch things and examine things. The seriousness and seeing that you can do a job and have fun with it is a factor I like a lot.”
For Taylor, the benefits of learning outside of the classroom are immeasurable. 
“When we go down there, the Brandywine River is our classroom, so the learning is happening out there on site,” she said. “And it’s just so convenient that we’re so close to the Brandywine that we can take advantage of our environment around us.”
For students, the benefits of going down to the river are a bit more obvious. As Richard Gessner ‘25 said, his favorite part of Stream Watch is “just being outdoors—not being stuck in a classroom all day.”