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Sixth-graders fish for ways to rid lakes of invasive species

‘The field trip of a lifetime’

Forest Hills — Sixth-graders Lexi Tornes, Alyssa Griffioen and Jenni Bajko admit they aren’t ones to speak up regularly in class. But that was before they stepped aboard a Great Lakes schooner and spent the day studying what makes the water healthy and how to keep it that way.

Said Jenni: “I didn’t really have an interest in science-y things, but after the experience of going on the boat and realizing how much science tells you about the world and how much things impact each other, I’m definitely starting to get a lot more interest in science.”

The trio — along with typically talkative Claire Pierczynski — are part of a pair of Central Woodlands school fifth-and sixth-grade classrooms that have spent the fall investigating invasive species of the Great Lakes based on that Oct. 12 trip and coming up with ways to help get rid of them.

The foursome’s group — dubbed the Preppy Fisherwomen/Ladies of the Lake/The Stubborn Group — studied spiny water fleas invasive to Lake Ontario, which gained a foothold there via a contaminated cargo ship.

And they are not easy to eliminate, Claire said. “They are zooplankton, which are really tiny and in the soil underwater.”

The group agreed that the practice of washing boat bottoms and fishing equipment every five days to interrupt the fleas’ life cycle is a good strategy. Claire said it’s important, because otherwise “they will keep having babies.” Lexi said they also clog fishing pole eyelets, and Jenni said allowing spinys to take over “would eliminate some species of the native zooplankton, which is good for the aquatic life.”

Grant-funded Field Trip

Over the summer, teacher Patty Tolly attended a four-day professional development session hosted by the Suttons Bay-based Inland Seas Education Association. Attendees were invited to apply for a grant to the association via Bay Watershed Education and Training for their students to travel to Suttons Bay and spend a day aboard a schooner.

Central Woodlands students became marine scientists, helping collect and analyze Great Lakes samples including fish, plankton and organisms that live along the bottom. They also helped hoist sails and pull up an anchor from about 100 feet, scooped microplastics and investigated invasive species such as round goby and zebra mussels. 

“I liked getting to look under the microscope and realizing how much invasive zooplankton there is, versus native zooplankton,” Jenni said. “There was a significant amount more.”

The curriculum aligns with Michigan Science Standards.

“It was the field trip of a lifetime,” Tolly said. “We learned so much, and they just loved it.”

As part of the day of hands-on learning, they also built and tested robotic-operated water vehicles. 

“I always teach about the design thinking process, so the goal was to have them incorporate that here,” Tolly said. “If something didn’t work, it was so interesting to see them go back and look at ways they could fix it.”

A group of Central Woodlands sixth-graders practice their invasive species skit

Sparking Enthusiasm

Back at school, language arts teacher Deb Elscholz had the students write about what they learned, and groups of Tolly’s students worked on projects centered on what organizations are doing to remove invasive species, and what sixth-graders can do.

The unit was the kickoff to what the students will study in science this year, including ecosystems, food webs, biodiversity and invasive plant species and how to mitigate them. 

Tolly said she is particularly pleased when a class activity sparks enthusiasm for learning in students who previously have been on the quiet side.

“That’s what project-based learning does, and that’s why I literally have goose bumps right now, when I love what I do, when every student can shine.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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