Watershed detectives

Students work with Matt Savatgy on habitats.

Declining student enrollment, often the messenger of bad news, may shed a small silver lining in the Onteora central school district. Bennett Elementary, the one time crowded school that needed modular classrooms, now holds fewer students — and that means opened up space for science and computer labs. What followed that discovery were grants that paid for specialized classrooms for grades Kindergarten-through-six. It also helped to have a parent, Matt Savatgy, with two kids in the district and who happens to be a geologist, to tap into grant programs and help boost science as a whole. His wife also teaches at the school. “I’m part volunteer, part grant writer and a part little league dad,” he said.

That is where Watershed Detectives came in, a grant of $4500 that came through the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County’s Ashokan Watershed Stream Management Program. Savatgy, the author of the grant, said it was an, “Environmental scientist in residence program,” where the scientist — in this case Savatgy — spends one day a week or more depending on class schedules, teaching students about the local environment. Savatgy called it the, “No child left inside,” program, since the classroom expands to the nature trail behind the school where students study the stream and surrounding wooded area.

On a cloudy but warm November afternoon Savatgy marched outside, with a group of grade-four students armed with nets, identification books, buckets and boots. “We start with stream watch,” said Savatgy. “We have a little stream on the nature trail, so the students are learning about the larger Ashokan watershed by studying our small stream, all the components including chemistry, what lives in it, all the physical measurement, a pollution component, we’ll talk about habitat and what happens to the stream when bad things happens.” He pointed out areas of erosion caused by Tropical Storm Irene and how some areas were fixed by using wood made of cedar. Students jumped into the stream, boots first, erring on the side of caution not to fall into the cold water. One student notated the temperature. Others dug into the muddy water bringing up samples of Macroinvertebrates and Salamanders. Their findings went into a bucket. When all gathered around Savatgy said the Macroinvertebrates were a typical find in healthy streams and so are Salamanders or “Newts.” But he said, “You guys found what you don’t normally see this time of year.” The newts identified as the Redback Salamander were exceptionally young. Students asked why. Savatgy said, “Because it hasn’t been a super freezing cold year and even though we had snow, nature is a little screwy right now.” Student concluded that with ease they found many critters that indicated the stream was healthy and clear. Future talks will include theories on the young salamanders.


One student said the temperature of the stream read 65 degrees. Sevatgy said, “In the classroom we will do a conversion to Celsius.” Sounds like math might be sneaking into the lesson.


Most for stream improvement

The science lab that was created from the grant was the beginning of a more enriched hands-on science program that is open to every grade. He said about three years ago, “I had this idea to create a lab for the kids to come and use the room to do science.” Savatgy worked with the PTA, which helped fund new microscopes and science supplies. The bright room is filled with all sorts of science treasures that Savatgy said he has collected over the years, or that came from the “science closet,” or was recently purchased. “My goal is to enrich what the students are doing, help the teachers and do more hands on,” he said, “and create an environment where they can bring the kids from their classrooms to this room.”

The PTA and students in the upper grades help with the upkeep of the Nature Trail that includes erosion control, building cedar bridges and general maintenance. The PTA also purchased several picnic tables for an outdoor classroom. Savatgy was pleased that Ashokan Watershed Stream Management Program (AWSMP) awarded a grant focused on education in steam management. “Most of the grants they receive are not for education but physical things like stream improvement so when they saw an educational component they were real excited about it,” he said. According to a press release from AWSMP, recent awards were announced adding up to $772,700 for water management projects throughout Ulster County. Of that, over $200,000 was awarded to the Town of Woodstock for bridge replacement, water protection and wood debris removal.

Savatgy had a long-term goal in mind. “So what the Watershed Detectives program is designed to do is teach children about the importance of watersheds and foster an overall attitude of protection of water resources.” Hopefully this will instill a responsible caretaker of water and environment when the children become adults and eventually homeowners. ++


There is one comment

  1. Rich Morris

    What an idea! Hands on, practical learning for children. These children will remember this experience throughout their lives as a valid, useful experience. Kudos to Savatgy for thinking of a way to teach Science in an accssible way!

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