From Swansea to Solihull: The FIRE lab educates school children on the fascinating world of freshwater ecosystems

Happy Friday readers! Yesterday, I (James White) swapped my usual routine of researching freshwater invertebrates, to teaching them to primary school children this week. For this, I visited Sharmans Cross Junior School (Solihull, West Midlands), who hosted a water day for their year 5 group (ages 9-10) so that the students could learn about how our precious freshwater environments can be protected.

Sharmans Cross School Pic

Sharmans Cross Junior School. Photo credit: Mark Chater.

For our fun-filled water day, Severn Trent Water (the regional water company) and I organised separate lessons and activities for the students to engage with. We both ran three sessions for each of the year 5 classes. Severn Trent Water entertained the pupils by asking them to measure the water usages of different hypothetical households to raise awareness of how people can modify their water consumption habits. Leaning on my experience with macroinvertebrates, I decided to educate the students on river food chains and the role that these ‘creepy critters’ play in the wider ecosystem.

On the morning of the event, I ventured out to a nearby river (River Cole, Birmingham) and collected macroinvertebrates using a standard kick-sample. These were then brought into the classroom and individual trays were placed on separate tables, where the students were trained as ID experts by using follow a basic key to identify the different macroinvertebrates swimming/crawling around, which included freshwater shrimp (Gammarus sp.), freshwater hoglouse/woodlouse (Asellus sp.), leeches (Helobdella stagnalis), mayflies (Baetidae) and caddisflies (Hydropscyhe sp.). I also found a American signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus) within the kick sample, which was kept separately at the front of the class so that students could be called up a table at a time to learn about how this invasive species has impacted our waterways. Once all tables had identified as many macroinvertebrates as they could see, we played a quick game to see which tables identified the most taxa, and we then began discussing which were herbivores, omnivores and carnivores.

Kids key

The simplified invertebrate ID key created by James White for the Sharmans Cross Students. (Note: Chironomids and other dipterans were incorporated into the ‘worms’ category for pragmatism).

The final portion of the lesson entailed educating students about how river ecosystems are threatened by different human activities. For this, I used the example of the River Tame (English Midlands), where the students had recently learnt about its history as one of the nations most polluted rivers in the early 20th century, and its ecological recovery in recent decades. The students learnt about this after recently visited the Kingsbury Water Park (Sutton Colefield), which happened to be a few kilometers from my MSc dissertation field site along the Tame and I shared my experiences and research (see White et al., 2017 for further details).

I would like to conclude by thanking the staff of Sharmans Cross for being so welcoming and the students for being so attentive, inquisitive and enthusiastic. Let’s hope that we have a new team of freshwater fanatics so help safeguard our fragile waterways in the future!

References

White, J.C., Hill, M.J., Bickerton, M.A. and Wood, P.J. (2017). Macroinvertebrate taxonomic and functional trait compositions within lotic habitats affected by river restoration practices. Environmental management60(3), pp.513-525.

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