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Environmentalists at Julius Marks check pulse of nearby creek

Science experiments and life lessons are right outside the back door at Julius Marks Elementary, where students have made fun discoveries in the creek behind Lansdowne-Merrick Park. “We’re looking at earth science, relationships in ecosystems, animal traits, and how they function,” said Rachel Patton of Bluegrass Greensource. “Environmental education has to start close to home so the kids make these connections.”

Patton and colleague Pattie Stivender spent the day guiding several classes on brief field trips with STEM teacher Amy Barrentine. Having barely left the parking lot, fifth graders paused to examine a towering black cherry tree next to the driveway – measuring its circumference and figuring its diameter at 32 inches. Patton noted how the tree’s roots stabilize the soil and serve as a filter for storm water, which eventually makes its way downhill. “It’s all about the creek,” she said. “We get a sense of how healthy the creek is and the watershed.”

leaves of the black cherry treeBefore the outings, Patton had led related classroom lessons for the older students. Meanwhile, second graders learned about the water cycle, and kindergarteners talked about the kinds of animals that live near water. Creek Day activities then provided a hands-on, meaningful outdoor adventure. “If we solely teach facts and don’t give students practical application, they will not value what they are learning. People remember experiences,” Barrentine said.

After the short walk to the creek, the group of fifth graders completed a three-part exercise within the hour: habitat survey, chemical test, and biological assessment. Students used their senses to observe the surrounding area – seeing myriad plants on the bank and mature trees shading the creek, spying minnows in the clear water, smelling fresh air, and hearing the running water and chirping birds. Stivender then explained about water pH levels, and students used a testing kit to peg the creek at an 8.5. (Anywhere between 6 and 9 is good for wildlife.) Finally, the youngsters divided into four small groups to examine washtubs of macroinvertebrates that Patton had scooped out – mostly flatworms, aquatic sowbugs, leeches, and gilled snails. “If it was dirty water, animals couldn’t live there,” said 10-year-old McDev Diyali. “The animals don’t have anywhere (else) to go,” added classmate Aubree Smith. Luckily, considering all the data, their class rated the creek’s water quality as “good.”

“It’s important for kids to learn about water quality so that they understand that daily decisions can have long-term consequences,” Barrentine said. “If people litter, dump liquids, don’t clean up animal waste, etc., the contaminants could end up in our creeks and streams. Environmental conservation is important so that not only our water, but also our air and soil will stay clean and healthy for all living things. We only have one earth, and we need to care for it as best we can.” 

Creek Day was funded in part by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government’s water quality management fee through the Stormwater Quality Projects Incentive Grant Program.

“I hope students take away a realization that each one of them can make a difference,” Barrentine said. “It will be many small acts of conservation that will make the most impact in keeping our special planet a wonderful, healthy place to live.” 

Did you know? The small creek behind the park flows into Hickman Creek, which flows to the Kentucky River, which Kentucky American Water uses as a source for drinking water.

Bonus fact: The Julius Marks Elementary campus is a designated arboretum.

(Posted Oct. 13, 2021)

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