Teachers explore Neches River to hone science skills

Michael Hoke uses a net to collect bottom organisms; teachers examine them.

A group of area science teachers embarked on the Big Thicket Association’s 45-foot excursion boat, the Ivory Bill, Friday, July 17, to conduct water testing on Ten Mile Bayou, part of the Big Thicket Preserve. The Neches River Adventures tour was part of Lamar University’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences 20th annual Teaching Environmental Science workshop, which introduces Southeast Texas EC-12th grade teachers to local environmental issues through first-hand experiences. Teachers not just from local schools but from all over Texas, including Houston and Dallas, took part in the professional development workshop.

“We have given the teachers water testing kits to use in their classrooms, so we want them to learn how to use them on-site and analyze the quality of the river in its current state,” said Jim Westgate, Lamar University professor of earth and space sciences.

The group tested the water’s turbidity (how clear it is), dissolved oxygen, pH, salinity, and density levels in Ten Mile Bayou.

“The level of turbidity determines how far light will go down into the water, which impacts plant growth,” said Michael Hoke, director and committee chair of the Big Thicket Association Neches River Adventures. “Dissolved oxygen is what allows organisms to live in the water. During the hotter part of the summer, the amount of oxygen decreases as the temperature of the water increases. This puts stress on all of the organisms in the aquatic ecosystem.”

The group’s dissolved oxygen test results showed that most organisms observed have adapted to an ecosystem with low oxygen.

Hoke also collected bottom organisms (benthos) from Ten Mile Bayou for the group to observe. The microscope magnifies the sample and shows it as an image on a screen so creatures can be easily identified.

“The best way to determine the condition of an aquatic ecosystem is to collect and identify the bottom organisms,” Hoke said. “If organisms that can only live in a non-polluted aquatic ecosystem are found, it shows that this ecosystem is not only presently clean, but has also been clean for a while.”

Josalyn Conwell, a science teacher from Lovelady Middle School (near Crockett), discovered a nematode, a parasitic worm. The group viewed the worm under a video microscope.

“Organisms such as this indicate the current condition of the water, along with its condition in the recent past,” Hoke said.

Conwell said workshops such as Teaching Environmental Science make her a better teacher.

“I spend about four to six weeks every summer attending teacher conferences, workshops, classes and professional development,” she said. “I know not many teachers do, but I feel that the more knowledge I can gain, the better equipped I can be and the more successful of a teacher I can become.”

The science teachers will take what they learned in the workshop and implement it in their classrooms.

“Each teacher would then show their students how to analyze water, adopt a stream near their school, and then be able to check the stream quality near them,” Westgate said.

“If you (educate) students, you impact that particular student, but if you (educate) teachers, you impact hundreds of students and, over their career, thousands of students,” Hoke added.

The Ivory Bill not only acts as a floating classroom for teachers during workshops, but also for students during the school year through the Neches River Adventures school program, which is free to area schools. The program encourages children to spend more time outdoors learning about the importance of the Neches River and its ecosystem. It also emphasizes TEA objectives and hands-on learning experiences.

“I really enjoyed the tour,” Conwell said. “I think it is a wonderful program … and would be very beneficial for students. … It has been proven that children learn better by doing. By getting them out of the classroom and exposing them to nature and the environment, they become more aware and sensitive to the world around them.”

Lamar University’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences finished up its two-week, annual Teaching Environmental Science summer institute by boarding airboats in Texas Coastal Waters to study oil spill prevention and response in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Texas General Land Office on Friday, July 24.

The 10-day field institute is offered in conjunction with the Region 5 Science Collaborative, local industries, state and federal agencies, and environmental non-governmental organizations. Since Teaching Environmental Sciences’ inception, more than 200,000 Texas students have taken classes from TES Institute in-service teacher alumni, according to information from Lamar University.