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Project based learning gets push locally

By Staff | Oct 16, 2009

USGS scientist Vicki Blazer meets with students at Wildwood Middle School recently.

SHENANDOAH JUNCTION – Wildwood Middle School students have been participating in a project based learning project that asks the question “Are intersex fish the canary in the Potomac River?”

Fifth-grade science teacher Carolyn Thomas attended the West Virginia Teacher Leadership Institute in July to study and design standards-focused project based learning, a cornerstone of the West Virginia plan for 21st Century Schools.

“These students know more about intersex fish than 99.99 percent of everyone in Jefferson County,” Thomas said before one of her classes presented their findings about pollution’s effects on smallmouth bass populations. “I think it’s important for the community to know what goes on in public education.”

For “Project Canary,” Thomas invited expert researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey to help with the project based learning.

In early September, USGS scientists Vicki Blazer and Luke Iwanowicz visited the middle school at 1209 Shenandoah Junction Road to help the students understand the problem of intersex fish. Blazer and Iwanowicz are the leading researchers in the study of intersex abnormalities in the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Theior work has been published widely in scientific journals, and they were recently featured in the PBS Frontline show “Poisoned Waters.”

Their visit to Wildwood included an overview of the discovery of intersex fish in 2002, discussion of possible causes ad demonstration of research techniques for assessing intersex.

A recent study of Potomac River watershed intersex abnormalities in fish conducted by researchers from the USGS and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service showed 82 percent of male smallmouth bass and 23 percent of largemouth bass had immature eggs in their reproductive organs. Intersex is a disturbance in the fish’s hormonal system and in an indicator of exposure to estrogens or chemicals that mimic the activity of natural hormones.

As part of “Project Canary,” students assisted the scientists in teams. Their “mission” required them to represent watershed stakeholders – fisherman/river guide, wastewater treatment operator, pharmacist, consumer, scientist, legislator and farmer – who “want to know if the discovery that male smallmouth bass in the Potomac River basin have … female egg cells in their testes will affect their lives and businesses. They have questions, and your job is to get the answers.”

Students produced films, PowerPoint presentations and posters which they recently presented to a guest panel made up of community representatives from USGS, USF&WS, the State Department of Education and the State Division of Environmental Protection.

“Students study real-world projects,” Thomas said. “This is about as timely as you can get.”

The 21st Century Schools plan promises to make sure all students graduate proficient in

Rigorous core subjects and 21st century content

The ability to think critically and solve problems

The application of knowledge at high levels in relevant contexts

Personal and work place productivity skills

The use of technology tools to assemble, communicate and analyze information

Before high-tech devices were used to measure air quality in underground mines, miners would take in live canaries. If a bird became agitated or died, it was a sure sign the air was contaminated by toxic gases, meaning it was time for the workers to get out.

So, is the smallmouth bass “the canary in the Potomac River?”

Is it time to get out of the water? It’s certainly time to get the pharmaceuticals and other pollutants out of the water, according to fifth graders at Wildwood Elementary School.

Here are some of their opinions:

Bill Hondersheldt:

“It’s like a fifty-fifty chance that people will change or not. Maybe some people might wise up.”

Sara Knotts:

“I never really realized that many fish were dying because of pollution.”

Sara Dockeney:

“I always used to go swimming in the Potomac River, but now that I know that, it’s kind of scary.”

– For more student comments, see Carolyn Thomas’s blog about “Project Canary” at http://boe.jeff.k12.wv.us/education/components/board/default.php?sectiondetailid=50373&