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Environmental Monitoring Adventure

Andre Wille

(Modified by Andre Wille from the Colorado Division of Wildlife Riverwatch program)

Type of entry:

  • Project

Type of Activity:

  • hands on activity
  • inquiry lab
  • group/cooperative learning
  • community outreach / off-site activity
  • outdoor education

Target audience:

  • Environmental Studies
  • Also applicable to:
    biology, advanced/AP biology, special needs or special education

Background Information

Environmental problems are of particular interest and concern to many students and teachers. In this activity, students research a local water pollution issue first hand, while in the field. They experience the problem directly and use the scientific method to better understand the impact of pollutants on the local flora and fauna. After identifying the problem, possible solutions are brainstormed by the students.

Notes for the Teacher:
This activity was tailored for a specific site high in the mountains, and required the use of mountain bikes for access. Though this approach may not work for you in your area, I encourage you to try to add some adventure into an outdoor science lab or field trip. The students will appreciate it and appreciate the science involved. Water quality monitoring is not only important to the general public, but it lends itself to getting science classes out into the field. Once outside of the school building, adventure abounds.

Abstract of Activity

During the fall of the past two years I have led groups of biology and chemistry students on overnight camping/water sampling missions to an old mining camp high in the Rocky Mountains. The unique part of this field trip is that to get to the study site, the participants mountain bike 12 miles up a four wheel drive road. The reason mountain bikes are used to access the site is because they are the most practical way to get a group of students into the remote location (the ride is also challenging and fun). From an 11,000 foot elevation, we gather water samples and collect invertebrates from a creek which we have found to be contaminated with acidic mine drainage. The variables measured by the students include pH, alkalinity, hardness, dissolved oxygen, heavy metals and invertebrate population. By comparing samples above and below the mine, students can quantify the severity of the mine pollution. Involvement in this project gives the students a feeling of being able to do basic research to identify a serious problem. The logical next step is for them to begin to hypothesize ways to remedy the situation. From their direct involvement, students learn first hand of the ability of science to help solve societal problems.


Environmental Monitoring Adventure

Materials for aquatic invertebrate collecting:

  • hip waders (as many as possible)
  • aquatic insect collecting nets (preferably sq.. foot Surber Sample nets if you wish to do quantitative population studies)
  • plastic sorting trays
  • forceps
  • magnifying lenses
  • collecting bottles (baby food jars)
  • 70 % ethanol (to preserve specimens for later identification and counting)
  • rubber gloves (if water is cold or kids are squeamish about algae on rocks)
  • Tape measure (to locate sample sites)
  • Key to aquatic invertebrates
  • Camera or video camera

Water chemistry materials:

  • pH meter or test paper
  • alcohol thermometers (not mercury thermometers)
  • 16 oz. plastic water sample bottles
  • Test kits for : Dissolved oxygen, hardness, alkalinity
  • 6 oz. plastic sample bottles for heavy metals samples.


Acidified mine drainage is known to contaminate waters throughout the mineral belt of the Colorado Rockies. By investigating the effects of these pollutants on the natural invertebrate community, we gain insight into the role of acid mine drainage on stream ecology. In high concentrations, contaminants may be directly lethal to stream inhabitants, particularly trout. Diluted, sublethal concentrations of mine drainage contaminants are more common and may have important effects on the invertebrate community composition and productivity. Preliminary water testing has indicated contamination of Lincoln Creek by abandoned mines near Ruby, Colorado. Knowledge of the mine drainage induced changes in macroinvertebrate community composition may be useful as a biological indicator of such pollution. Unfortunately, data on the community level effects of mine drainage are limited. Furthermore, the identification of significant impacts on the stream ecology of Lincoln Creek may warrant attempts at mitigating the mine drainage problem.

As a science teacher, part of the motivation for this project was to actively involve students in ecological field research. High school biology students participated in data collection, evaluation and presentation. This active role in "doing science" hopefully made the topic more relevant and important to them. Data were collected during a two day camping trip to the study site.

The purpose of this activity is to compare the invertebrate populations above and below the input of acidified mine drainage. This information will help to document the effect of the contaminated water flowing out of an abandoned mine on the local flora and fauna.


Aquatic Invertebrate population
1. Mark off a 100 ft. section of stream above and below the source of pollution.

2. Divide this 100 ft. section into ten transects across the stream.

3. Randomly select ten locations to take square foot samples of the bottom substrate with the Surber Sample net. This works best if stream bed is no deeper than the net.

4. Place the net over the substrate to be sampled. One person should hold the net in place in the stream current while another stirs up the substrate inside the perimeter of the net. All rocks must be scrubbed in a way to wash all invertebrates into the net. Sand and gravel should be stirred up to allow any invertebrates to wash into the net.

5. Organisms in the sample net can then be washed into a sorting tray to be identified and counted. Invertebrates can later be returned to the stream if kept hydrated. Some specimens may be collected for further identification.

6. Repeat procedure for each of ten samples above and below the source of pollution (if possible).

Water Chemistry

1. Use a bucket to collect a composite of three separate batches of stream water.

2. Fill your sample bottles with the composite sample for testing.

3. Test each of the chemical variables using a kit or the standard method* :
Dissolved oxygen, Hardness, Alkalinity, and Temperature.

Note: These tests may be conducted at the site, or the samples can be taken back to the lab for analysis.

*American Public Health Association. (1989) Standard methods for the examination of water and wastewater. (17th ed. ). New York: Author.


Students could be assessed using a formal typed lab report which includes an abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion, bibliography, tables and graphs.

If the class is less academically inclined, assessment could be based on accurate data collection and record keeping using field notebooks or data sheets.


A format similar to the one outlined would certainly work for any number of aquatic investigations. Sampling could be conducted above and below a sewage treatment plant, a factory, a city, a reservoir, etc. I have conducted similar water testing trips with students while on multi day raft trips, cross-country ski trips or backpacking trips.

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