Originally published in The Mason Gazette, April 28, 2011
by Ashley Moss
Seventh grade students from Cooper Middle School gathered at Lake Fairfax in Reston, Va., on April 14 for a series of hands-on science experiments designed to get insight on human impacts on local nature and wildlife. The 130 students worked with a county school science specialist, Mason students and staff from the Potomac Environment Research and Education Center (PEREC) on an outdoor experience called Testing the Waters.
PEREC is a vital part of the university’s Potomac Science Center. Its main purpose is to increase our understanding and stewardship of local ecosystems, watersheds and landscapes through research and teaching local students and communities.
Testing the Waters is part of a larger set of PEREC initiatives that provide meaningful watershed educational experiences for students in Fairfax County and Prince William County Public Schools; the initiative is supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In this year alone, nearly 10,000 secondary school students will participate in these educational programs.
Lake Fairfax is a Fairfax County park that spans more than 400 acres and includes several relatively pristine streams. It is prime for student research and learning.
“These experiments tell how healthy the lake is,” says Cindy Smith, education director for PEREC. The students use knowledge they’ve gained from their science curriculum to further determine if a lake is polluted, Smith adds. Using handheld GPS units in the field and mapping programs back at school, students also examined their spatial connection to the Chesapeake Bay.
As interesting as the experiments are, it is the interaction with nature—especially the insect larvae and worms that live in the water–that excites the students the most. “It’s always something that you wouldn’t expect to be the highlight–that’s what thrills the kids,” says Smith. ”They have no idea these critters live here until they flip over a rock or two.”
The program includes a unique opportunity for Mason’s environmental science students to apply their classroom knowledge to extensive work as field scientists and interpreters. The opportunity also allows school-aged students a chance to apply some of the latest technology to studying local ecosystems.
“The purpose is to give students the opportunity to interact with nature and really examine their environment,” says Dann Sklarew, PEREC’s associate director and a professor of environmental science and policy at Mason.
“We hope that this kind of connection, over time,” Sklarew continues, “will be a way for us to instill a stewardship in our whole region and also that it will create enthusiasm for students who might be interested in coming to study environmental issues at Mason.”