Youth are talking about water quality in northeast Michigan – Part 3

Youth are learning about and using aquatic macroinvertebrate monitoring to discuss water quality across northeast Michigan.

Youth across northeast Michigan have spent time outside the classroom this spring and fall through place-based education projects collecting water quality data to be shared across the region through the National Geographic FieldScope Great Lakes site. Youth collected both biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) data incorporating inquiry and experiential learning through partnerships developed within the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (NEMIGLS).

While collecting biotic (living) data, youth used a modified version of the MiCorps Steamside Biosurvey to record the diversity of aquatic macroinvertebrates found within their watershed. Youth used dip nets to collect the macroinvertebrates, then sorted them into ice cube trays for counting and identifying. Youth used the Key to Macroinvertebrate Life in the River, developed by the University of Wisconsin Extension, to identify their organisms.

One question posed to youth during a water quality monitoring discussion was, “What are aquatic macroinvertebrates?” Using their own frame of reference, youth determined aquatic macroinvertebrates are small organisms without backbones that lived in the water.

  • Aquatic = water
  • Invertebrate = no vertebrae (no backbone)
  • Macro = small but could be seen with the naked eye (without magnification)

Many youth were surprised by what they learned about the sensational life cycle of the dragonfly. The female dragonfly flies above the water dipping her abdomen into it and depositing her eggs. The eggs, about the size of a pencil tip, hatch into a tiny nymph. The nymph’s goal, like that of a caterpillar, is to eat and grow and eat and grow for years. The life cycle of a dragonfly is termed incomplete metamorphosis because the nymphs look like tiny adults, unlike with butterflies where their life cycle includes stages like the caterpillar, which does not look like the adult and is called complete metamorphosis.

When old enough, the dragonfly nymph crawls up onto the grass around the water’s edge and cracks open and crawls out of its exoskeleton, or an external skeleton that supports and protects an animal’s body (humans have an endoskeleton). It unfurls and dries out its wings, then flies away to begin life as a land predator able to snatch other insects in flight.

Through this exploration of aquatic macroinvertebrates, youth learned about the life cycle of dragonflies, different metamorphoses and predator-prey relationships in the realm of macroinvertebrates. While engaged in this inquiry and experiential place-based education, youth in northeast Michigan have gained a deeper understanding of their community and have played a vital role in helping to monitor one of our precious resources, the Great Lakes.

To learn more about inquiry and experiential learning, visit the 4-H National website. To find ways 4-H youth can explore STEM fields, visit the Michigan State University Extension Science and Technology page. 

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