Forest Grove Community School student taking a closer look at macroinvertebrates living in a stream near the school.

Innovative tools allow a teacher to extend class activities on stream ecology and forest history

by Charles Graham

I have made an interesting observation about teaching recently.  Some of the best lessons are not necessarily the carefully planned and orchestrated units, but rather the ones that grew and took shape as the project progressed.  I have found that some of my best teaching has been when I didn’t know the exact outcome in advance and learned something new right along with my students. This has been my experience with environmental exploration into stream ecology and the “Leaf Pack” program.

About five years ago, I was looking for a way to have my 6th graders make deeper environmental connections.  My classes had raised salmon and trout for several years through a Fish & Wildlife program, and I sought out a way to extend my student’s learning about life cycles and habitat into the stream ecology that supports fish.  I decided to give the “Leaf Pack” program from LaMotte a try, even though this was new territory for me, as I had no academic training or background in the study of macroinvertebrates.

The basic procedure of a Leaf Pack experiment is pretty straight forward.  Students identify the primary trees in the riparian zone that “feed” the stream.  Leaves are collected, weighed, and placed in mesh bags, then are carefully placed into the water. Observational data is collected about the stream, stream banks, and air/water temperature.  Three to four weeks later these bags are retrieved from the water and carefully examined for macroinvertebrates that have taken up residence in this ‘trap’.

The identification and sorting is made easy with the use of a number of resources included in the Leaf Pack kit, including sorting place mats, full color identification cards, magnification loupe, and a dichotomous key. Once sorted, a tally of each type of macroinvertebrates is recorded for later analysis. Stream conditions and air/water temperature are noted for comparisons, and then the aquatic critters are returned to their stream.


Student placing leaves into a mesh bag which will then be placed in the stream as a “trap” for macroinvertebrates.

The first time a class of mine attempted to run the Leaf Pack experiment was a true learning experience for all involved.  My personal learning curve had to be a steep one, as I was learning just one step ahead of the students. Worries that we might not find anything in our packs to analyze turned out to be unfounded. As the day progressed excitement built.  I found myself saying many phrases like “I don’t know- what do you think?” or “good question- we will have to research that further”. The engagement of the students was perhaps the most exciting part. They seemed to feed on their discoveries and the challenges they presented, eventually making some deep connections and observations. Those that had expressed hesitance to work so closely with these ‘ugly bugs’ soon lost their inhibitions and fully participated.

Back in the classroom, the excitement continued.  The collected data became more meaningful, as we uploaded it into the Leaf Pack Network data base.  The results were magically transformed at the web site into colorful graphs, with “biotic index” numbers and “EPT ratings” that indicated that the stream water quality was healthy. The whole process clearly showed us that it was not just the quantity of macroinvertebrates that mattered, but the variety.  It turns out that not all macroinvertebrates are of equal value and each species has different pollution tolerance values that are used to indicate the overall water quality. The fact that our data was now published and easily could be compared to other streams and rivers throughout the country added pride to what we had accomplished.

image002Leaf Pack has now become a mainstay in my yearly curriculum. I am now able to add more to background information and pre-trip activities that enhance student learning.  Students seem to naturally make connections between our studies of trees that produce the leaves. Leaves eventually feed nutrients to the streams, which in turn feed the macroinvertebrates, and become the food base of the salmon and trout. Our study of trees, stream ecology, and the raising of fish are all designed as ‘hands on’ experiences. The effectiveness of teaching through these projects is clearly demonstrated through the student’s depth of understanding of this energy flow and the interconnections in nature.

This past year, our work with Leaf Pack opened up into some new directions.  We are now collecting steam water quality data on an ongoing basis for Hyla Woods, a local “sustainable” harvest timber company.  As part of their efforts towards restoring a creek after a period of several flooding, we are analyzing macroinvertebrates populations in the fall and the spring. We plan to continue this for at least three years with the goal of complying comparison data to help determine the effectiveness of their overall restoration efforts. The fact that student work can provide usable information for a real world situation, adds meaning and authenticity to their efforts, as well as a sense of pride and value.

The opportunity to be frequent visitors to Hyla Woods has deepened our connection to the land and has developed into a real sense of place. This last year, Peter Hayes (Hyla’s owner and former school teacher/principal and Clearing contributor) helped us explore his forest for signs of past impacts of man. Our discoveries revealed a dramatic history of pioneer farming attempts and periods of extensive logging. By the end of the year, our work at the water’s edge had expanded into an exercise of “reading the land” for signs the history of the area. In collaboration with our art teacher, we eventually created a wall sized mural as an exhibit of our findings. This interactive display includes student writing describing what they found and its significance.

In order for education to be most effective, what we do must be alive and genuine.  Sometimes the best way to do this is to venture into new directions with your students. Be open and willing to try what is unknown to not only your students, but to yourself as well. Seeking out collaborative relationships with the community can add authenticity to whatever you study. The adventure of learning is greatest when discoveries are yours as well as your students.

Charles Graham has been a classroom teacher for 23 years teaching all disciplines for grades 4-6. He currently teaches at the Forest Grove Community School in Forest Grove, Oregon.