“Pond”-ering Science

By Tara Laidlaw

Enthusiasm for STEM education (interdisciplinary learning in science, technology, engineering, and math) is growing among teachers and administrators, as are concerns about summer learning loss—a backslide in academic achievement that plagues many students after a summer away from the classroom. Summer camps are an ideal venue to address both of these trends, and with the right programs, campers won’t even know that they’re keeping their academic skills sharp!

Camp Burgess & Hayward, a YMCA camp in Sandwich, Mass., operates as a traditional brother-sister residential camp during the summer months and as an outdoor education facility during the school year. In 2016, the summer-camp staff teamed up with the outdoor-education director to develop a camp-friendly, hands-on science program that drew on the facility’s existing academic curricula, which is designed to address state and national education frameworks for grades 4 through 12. One of the education program’s most beloved classes is “Pond Study,” where students explore the facility’s macroinvertebrate-rich swamp and collect data about the types of organisms that live there, practicing the scientific-inquiry process and getting muddy at the same time. This class was a prime candidate for transformation into a summer-camp activity because it elevates a classic summer pastime—searching for creatures in a pond—into an opportunity for science skill-building, simply by including a data sheet and asking some thoughtful questions.

Gathering Supplies
This camp version of the Pond Study class fits into an hour-long program; the materials are all reusable and relatively inexpensive, with an upfront cost of about $30 per group of three or four campers. Each group needs a large dip net, a “holding tank,” a plastic spoon or two, a plastic box with a magnifier lid (optional), a macroinvertebrate ID sheet, a data-collection sheet (optional), and a writing utensil; the instructor needs a copy of a graphic representing the scientific-inquiry cycle.


Scientific inquiry-cycle graphics and freshwater macroinvertebrate ID sheets are readily available for free online. For this activity, look for an ID sheet that groups organisms by pollution tolerance (categories will be labeled “very intolerant,” “moderately intolerant,” “tolerant,” etc.). To simplify the process, use the ID sheet as the data-collection sheet—campers can use tally marks or check marks next to the pictures of the organisms, keeping track of how many different individuals of each species they find. For a slightly more readable approach, use a separate data-collection sheet that lists the species and their tolerances as shown on the ID sheet; campers can tally their finds on that sheet and then use it to calculate their final results for the group. For these paper materials, lamination is great for reusability and waterproofing, but regular paper works fine, too—just include a clipboard or other writing surface for non-laminated papers.

The “holding tanks” can be made of anything (rinsed yogurt containers, retired dining-hall bowls, old “leftovers” containers), and the boxes with magnifier lids are a fun tool, but not pivotal to the success of the activity.

Below is an excerpt from the activity guide that the counselors receive when they are trained in this program; it is a slightly adjusted version of the guide given to the school-season instructors.

Getting Started
Welcome the group to the swamp and explain that, in this activity campers are going to become real-life field scientists, collecting data to better understand the health of Spectacle Pond. Show the group the scientific inquiry-cycle graphic, noting that the group has already posed the first question: How healthy is the pond? Ask the students to make a hypothesis (a best guess), then ask the group what type of data it might be able to collect that would indicate something about the pond’s water quality. Tell the group it will collect and study macroinvertebrates at the swamp (a fancy way of saying the campers will catch bugs), that the group will record its data (a fancy way of saying the children will keep track of what they find), and that the group will analyze the data to make a conclusion (a fancy way of saying students will look for patterns in the information they collect).

Divide the campers into groups of three or four and hand out nets and other materials. Show the campers how to use the provided tools: First, scoop a few inches of water into a small tub to be a “holding tank.” Demonstrate using the nets with the poke-and-drag method (poke the bottom of the pond with the end of the net and drag it gently through the muck and grass, then pull the whole thing up and let it drain before searching for critters), and show how to carefully transfer the critters from the net to the tub with fingers or a spoon.

Highlight some key characteristics that will help students identify their macroinvertebrates, such as number of legs, shape of the tail, presence or absence of antennae, etc. Also show the group how the pictures and names on the ID sheet, and each critter’s pollution-tolerance level, correspond to the names and categories on the data-collection sheet. Ask campers to tally each individual critter they find, keeping track not just of the types of macroinvertebrates they’re collecting, but how many of each type. Encourage the groups to spread out along the shoreline, but remind them to stay within the delineated boundaries. Allow the groups to explore and collect data for 30 to 40 minutes before asking them to collect their materials and reconvene.

Analyzing Data
Bring the whole group together and explain that it is now moving into the “analyze data” part of the scientific-inquiry cycle. Have each small group add its totals for each of the tolerance categories and write the totals in the boxes on each group’s own data sheet. Then, have one group at a time share its totals for each tolerance category. Compare the small groups’ findings, and as a large group look for patterns. For example:

·         Were there many pollution-tolerant organisms and not many pollution-sensitive ones? What does that say about pollution in the pond?

·         Were there many dragonfly nymphs, but no snails? Why might that be?

·         Did some groups find invertebrates (frogs, fish, etc.) in addition to the macroinvertebrates? What does that indicate about food chains in and around the pond?

Be receptive to questions that the group might not be able to answer—these are an integral part of the scientific process.

Bringing It Full Circle
After coming to a conclusion about the pond’s health, revisit the scientific inquiry-cycle graphic, and recap how the group addressed each step. Guide the discussion toward the cyclical nature of science: The group performed an experiment today, but that experiment probably raised many more questions than it answered. If the students could have another day of experimenting, what questions would they want to try to answer, and how might they collect data?

Tara Laidlaw is the Farm Director for Camp Burgess & Hayward, South Shore YMCA, in Sandwich, Mass. Reach her at tlaidlaw@ssymca.org.