Mr. Steele Gets a Twofer

Mr. Steele Gets a Twofer
A student pours her water sample into a special envelope that will be sealed prior to incubation.

A Personal Reflection on DRA’s New Water Quality Lab: (One reason) why I went to work for DRA

When I was in the seventh grade, I had the chance to take part in a water quality study of Blue Heron Lake in Bedford, New York. Mr. Steele was a wonderful teacher at our public middle school with a special interest in environmental science, and he invited me and another boy in my class to join him in this project.

For several Fridays in a row through the fall, we took turns rowing a boat around the lake and taking water samples for later testing. We also lowered a Secchi disk into the water, a black and white Frisbee of sorts on a marked line with a weight hanging below it. We noted carefully the depth at which we could no longer see it. It’s still one of the best simple measures of a water body’s transparency, basically giving a sense of how turbid – full of sediment and algae – the water is.

lowering a Secchi disk into the water

Using a Secchi disk to measure water transparency

A highlight of our study was discovering a Volvox colony, a slimy green globe almost as large as a soccer ball with pits on the surface like craters on the moon. Not only was a slimy and green object pretty cool to a pair of seventh grade boys in and of itself, but on top of that Mr. Steele shared with us that we had stumbled upon a rare sighting, an organized community of single-celled creatures that was a precursor to today’s multicellular organisms, combining plant and animal characteristics. At least that’s how I remember it.

Volvox colony under a microscope

But remember it I do, and vividly! I assure you I can’t recall much else about seventh grade in that level of detail. That’s one reason I’m so excited about a new initiative here at DRA, one that builds on our longstanding water quality efforts along the river, in this instance involving students. Hands-on nature-based education makes concepts come to life and, done well, inspires an interest and passion for the natural world, perhaps for life.

Right here at the Great Salt Bay Heritage Center we have just established a new water quality lab to measure a particular type of bacteria called Enterococci, which allows us to evaluate levels of bacterial contamination in the river and its tributaries – the streams that flow into it – with a high level of precision at a low cost. Purchased with funding from a Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture Network (SEANET) seed grant, an incubator, some sample trays, a sealing device, and an optical reader are all the equipment it takes to jump into first-hand lab analysis.

taking a water sample

A Lincoln Academy student collects a water sample

The primary analysts? Alternative Education students from Lincoln Academy! They’ll be taking the samples in local streams, analyzing them, and finally sharing those results. Even as we all learn more about the Damariscotta River and its tributaries so we can better target our land conservation efforts and strengthen our work with local towns, a group of students will be enjoying a first-rate educational experience which is likely to stay with them in ways that classroom experiences may not. Who knows what the results of these hands-on studies may be!

In my case, the lineage from pond study to profession is a direct one, though notably with plenty of reinforcement along the way. I’m privileged to work for a non-profit organization dedicated to the well-being of a vital estuary and the communities that depend on it, whose logo just happens to be a Great Blue Heron. My understanding of Blue Heron Lake and the development around it – from seventh grade – reinforced for me that responsible land use, thoughtful conservation, and healthy watersheds are intimately connected.

Incidentally, the other boy on the boat in seventh grade eventually became one of my best friends, and he, Willard Morgan, now leads Chewonki just around the corner in Wiscasset, also dedicated to environmental education, not to mention transformative learning. So if, back in the day, Mr. Steele’s intention was to kindle a passion for the natural world through project-based outdoor learning, he got a twofer!

We can’t know how many students this new water quality program at DRA will influence. Potential and current DRA members like you, dear reader, are making programs like this possible every day, changing lives as they do. For that, I am truly grateful. And if their faces and high level of engagement are any indication, so are those fortunate students.

In the photos below, a student prepares a water sample for incubation in the new Water Quality Lab at DRA. The sample is poured into a special envelope which divides the sample among a number of separate wells. Breaking the sample up into small observable units this way makes it easier to assess bacteria levels. The filled envelope is then pressed into a stiff form that keeps everything in place as it passes through the sealer. The sealed envelope is ready for incubation!

Volvox photo courtesy of Frank Fox ( [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons