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St. Louis River Watch

By David Blinn

Type of Entry:

  • Project - Multiple Components/Activities

Type of Activity:

  • Hands-on Activity
  • Group/Cooperative Learning
  • Community Outreach/Off Site Learning

Target Audience:

  • Biology (Grade 10)
  • Advanced/AP Biology
  • Environmental Studies
  • Life Science

Background Information:

St. Louis River Watch is a comprehensive river monitoring activity. The fundamental question is simple: What does a healthy waterway look like? The strength of this activity is that the question is addressed at several levels. Water quality, the benthic community, and the involvement of citizens (students) on behalf of the river are all considered as being part of the answer. This activity is not contrived for school use. Rather, this activity has faith in the ability of high school students to make use of their interests and skills to contribute toward environmental concerns in and around their communities.

The role of the teacher in a monitoring activity is one of coordinator. This is an out-of-classroom activity and is done at, on, and in the river. Advanced preparation is critical to on-site efficiency. An accessible and representative site must be chosen and coordinated with any other groups that monitor. For the purpose of consistency and continuity of data, a same day sampling is preferred. The students must be prepared to make the measurements and the observations. This activity accepts the role of the student and does not require the teacher to double-check every piece of collected data.

The students are the key to St. Louis River Watch. They must understand the objective of the activity and be familiar with the equipment and the sampling procedures in order to validate the activity. They collect, organize, process, and disseminate all data. Their work begins at least two days prior to the sampling day and continues for two to three days afterwards. Commitment to the activity by students gives the program credibility and continuity.

There are two types of preparation for the teacher in this monitoring program. The first type requires each participating teacher or school to gather all the equipment necessary to do the monitoring. This would also include the necessary background in water chemistry equipment and their protocols as well as familiarity with aquatic communities and sampling procedures required to prepare students for the activity. The second type is the time spent with students prior to sampling that prepares them for the day on the river. The first can be done using the materials and equipment and publications listed below and in the activity description. The second is done in class with students on the days leading up to the activity. Reminder: Experience is a wonderful teacher. I designate one (1) week of class days for St. Louis River Watch. Wednesday works best as the day of the week to be at the river and do the sampling. The entire day is spent in the field. Wednesday allows two days for in-class preparations (Monday and Tuesday) and two days for data organizing and general follow-up (Thursday and Friday).


  • Field Manual for Water Quality Monitoring
  • Mark K. Mitchell and William B. Stapp c1991
  • An Environmental Education Program For Schools - Fifth Edition

Thomson-Shore Printers
7300 Joy Rd.
Dexter, Michigan 48130

  • River Watch Network
  • Aquatic Entomology
    153 State Street

William B. Stapp
2050 Delaware Ave.
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48103

W. Patrick McCafferty
Montpelier, Vermont 05602

Jones and Bartlett Publishers
(802) 223-3840

Resource - Program Information
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
Suite 704
320 W. 2nd Street
Duluth, Minnesota 55802

Equipment Suppliers:
Hach Company
P.O. Box 389
Loveland, CO 80539
1-800-234-5227 ext. 3156

Baxter Scientific
1210 Waukegan Road
McGraw Park, IL

(708) 473-2114 fax
301 Cass Street
Saginaw, MI 48602-2097

VWR Scientific
(517) 799-8100
P.O. Box 66929
(517) 799-8115 fax

O'Hare AMF
Chicago, IL 60666

Abstract of Activity:

The river we watch is the largest tributary to Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. The St. Louis River is 160 miles in length, draining a watershed of over 3500 square miles. It drops 1100 feet over its length, half of which occurs in the last ten miles of river. Our monitoring is done in this gorge area, within the boundaries of Jay Cooke State Park. The river has received eighty years of wood products industry pollution followed by less than twenty years of reduced discharge. The St. Louis River Watch program is working to establish baseline data to contribute toward future land and resource use decisions. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has been the initial sponsor of this open-ended environmental study. The Western Lake Superior Sanitary District also accesses the results and validates the program's community value and impact.

This project is designed to provide participating students with a hands-on field sampling experience in environmental science. Students monitor a designated site on the St. Louis River for general water quality and the health of the benthic macro invertebrate community. The students receive age and grade appropriate training in water chemistry and organism sampling. Water chemistry analysis kits (Hach) and standard field sampling equipment are provided for student use. Accepted sampling techniques produce reproducible data and results. The health of the benthic community is measured using indicator species and their relative ratios.

Monitoring is done three times each year: spring, summer, and fall. All sophomore biology students at Wrenshall High School are part of the monitoring each spring. The fall monitoring is done by the juniors in chemistry. This group of juniors become the mentors for the next spring monitoring. Any student with prior experience is welcome to help with summer monitoring.


The St. Louis River Watch monitoring program is sponsored by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The activities and procedures described are of MPCA choosing. River Watch Network is the source for standard sampling techniques in the study of rivers and streams. Water quality standards are followed as presented in Field Manual For Water Quality Monitoring by Mark K. Mitchell, M.S. and William B. Stapp, Ph.D., 5th Edition. I, David Blinn, have modified this program only to the extent to which I implement the activities within my school's science curriculum and in how I prepare my students for participation.

The day at the river begins with an extensive Sample Site General Observation Sheet which is a visual survey of the specific sample area. This includes location of site, sample day weather conditions, river and riverbank and habitat characteristics, river use, known pollution sources, and any other information pertinent to the river's current condition and health. This, and all other reporting forms used, are available from the MPCA at the address provided.

Safety equipment:

  • chest waders
  • shoulder-length gloves (optional)
  • life jackets - certified PFD
  • safety goggles - for use with kits
  • rope

Safety equipment has obvious application when students are not just at the river but actually in it. The safety equipment listed is best purchased through local hardware stores or sporting goods outlets.


Water Chemistry Testing
Test Instrument
Dissolved Oxygen Hach Kit
5 Day BOD Hach Kit
pH Hach Kit - could use portable pH meter
Nitrates Hach Kit
Total Phosphates Hach Kit
Temperature thermometer - high quality
Total Solids 1000 ml beaker and hot plate
Fecal Coliform done by MPCA technicians
Turbidity done by MPCA technicians

The nine tests that are performed for St. Louis River Watch are those outlined in Mitchell and Stapp. Water samples for testing should be collected in the current flow at the monitoring site, not too near to the shore. The sample should be representative of the river at that point.

Hach kits are used for five of the tests and the procedure for each is provided with the kit. The students must read and follow the directions. Temperature is taken with a good quality thermometer. At least four liters of river water are brought back to the school in a cooler. Total solids is done by putting exactly one liter of water in a clean dry beaker with a known mass. The water is evaporated completely and the beaker is massed again.

Fecal coliform and turbidity are taken by MPCA technicians. Fecal coliform could also be done by students with the appropriate Hach kit. A Secchi disk can be used by students in certain situations to measure turbidity. A turbidimeter is more expensive, but it is more accurate and can be applied in all situations.

Benthic Sampling

  • kick net
  • wash sieve bucket - screened bottom
  • testing sieve - brass; screened bottom
  • fine tip forceps
  • wide mouth bottles - Nalgene
  • reagent alcohol - blend
  • small cooler for transport of river water back to school
  • Hester Dendy artificial substrates
  • homemade; hardboard and eye bolt
  • nylon coated cable and cinder blocks for anchoring substrates
  • 12"x24" plastic trays for counting organisms - can be sectioned

The benthic macro invertebrate sampling gives students the opportunity to actually get in the river and see what lives on the bottom. This program uses two methods to collect samples: kick net and artificial substrates.

The kick net is a sturdy net that is held on the river bottom perpendicular to current flow. One student holds the net and another "kicks" up the river bottom upstream a distance of one meter. The kick can be standardized by "kicking" for a measured time period or by a predetermined number of organisms that must be gathered per kick. The contents of the net for each kick is screened and all collected organisms are put in a Nalgene bottle with alcohol. These bottles are brought back to school. Every benthic organism is identified to the Order level and is counted by type and kind. These data are tabulated, and averaged and coordinated with similar data generated by the other groups that monitor.

An artificial substrate is a hardboard grid that is anchored in the river for a fixed amount of time (30 days) prior to the sample day. The substrates are carefully taken out of the water, taken apart, and all of the benthic organisms are screened and put in bottles with alcohol. They are then taken back to school and counted and averaged just are the organisms captured by net. The results from each sample type are kept and reported separately.


The value of the monitoring experience is deeply rooted in the personal involvement of the student. It is very difficult to quantify the impact of involvement in the short term. Effort is made to subjectively gauge impact at different levels. The students are surveyed before and after the monitoring for attitude changes. Students are also encouraged to get involved with making presentations at public meetings, the annual River Congress, and any other forum for discussion of the river and its health. The group currently involved will be asked to make a video of their involvement. This video will include an overview of the total activity and interviews with participants. This evaluation will be made in conjunction with the expertise of our Language Arts Department.

Student response has always been active and positive. There is never the issue of non-participation. Objective evaluation with a number assigned to output and converted to a letter grade has not seemed necessary or even appropriate. The value of having students participate in the maintenance of the river's health is reason enough to embrace this activity as a yearly curricular constant.


In the spring of 1996, a local trout stream that is tributary to the St. Louis River will be monitored at multiple sites exclusively by Wrenshall students. This will be in addition to our involvement with the St. Louis River program. Several different grade levels will monitor, making this experience part of the scope and sequence of science education in our district. The intention is to involve our students at an earlier age and for a longer period of their time in school in order to establish a greater sense of environmental stewardship.

Direct contact with the outdoors is essential to the success of the project. It is the engine that drives and motivates the students to get involved. This environmental science project will promote learning by doing, develop analyzing and predicting skills, and require students to present data to interested groups. The expected outcome is a heightened interest in scientific application, environmental stewardship, and civic and social efficacy.

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