In search of insects and a cleaner creek
It’s a quiet Saturday morning in the Wissahickon Valley and the Watershed Wizards are knee deep in the cold water of the Wissahickon Creek. We’re only 20 feet from Forbidden Drive, but it might as well be another world, with the strange insects the kids are finding underneath slippery rocks and in the cool dark bends of the creekbed.
I honestly expected a lot of screaming and yelling from fourth graders pulling creepy crawlies out of the water, but it’s strictly “ooohs” and “aaahs” from this group. And they’re jazzed about the hunt — they volunteer to wade back into the cold stream time and time again, kicking water at metal screens they’ve set up to catch more insects.
They’re even more fascinated to talk about their discoveries with Peg Shaw, one of the co-founders of the Wizards (along with Allison Ostertag), or Stephanie Figary, a guest speaker from the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association.
Steph, a Freshwater Ecologist, explains what they’ve found and, in keeping with the Wizards ecological mission, what the type of insect (technically, they’re macroinvertebrates) says about the water quality in the Wissahickon. (A dragonfly nymph for instance, is a relatively good sign since it’s somewhat sensitive to pollution. Unfortunately, the Wizards didn’t find any of the extremely sensitive types of nymphs which would have been great news about the water quality.)
But it isn’t a dry lecture, there are the kinds of off-the-wall “kid questions” that make the experience fun and collaborative. “Miss Figary, you said that nymph spends its whole life in the shape of a J. How can you live like that?”
The question gave Steph a chance to explain how the nymph breathes and where it lived in the stream. It’s the kind of educational experience that the Wizards program aims for, one that results from participation and curiosity.
Perhaps more importantly, these kinds of trips raise the kids’ awareness about the role of water in our urban environment and, by involving guest speakers from multiple academic disciplines, gives the kids an idea about future careers in the sciences. (Peg’s own academic career — she graduated from Temple as a landscape architect — played a large part in the creation of the Wizards.)
For now, the kids are excited to explore our local wilderness (they just recently went birdwatching at the John Heinz Wildlife Preserve) and Peg and Allison are working to increase the funding for the program so they can continue to teach the next generation about the importance of our shared resources.