Fifth graders Reagan Schriver (C) and Colin Helbling (R) collect pond samples with science teacher Heather Capezzuti (L).
Ever since the first North Hills Campus kindergarteners studied a pair of geese building a nest and preparing for goslings, the pond has enriched learning across disciplines and divisions. Today, this living laboratory is launching deeper lessons than ever before, thanks to a new partnership with Aquatic Edge Consulting.

“The project authentically grew out of a concern and need for action to restore and maintain the pond’s habitat,” declares science teacher Heather Capezzuti, whose fifth grade Aquatic Habitats unit explores the essential question: Is the pond a healthy aquatic habitat? The unit begins each fall with a long walk around the pond. “We make a list of observations; talk about what a healthy habitat might look like; learn about watersheds; conduct simple water quality tests; discuss how biotic and abiotic factors in and around our pond interact with each other; look at aquatic food chains and food webs; and search for indicator species whose presence tells us about the water quality.”

When Capezzuti began studying the pond 19 years ago, it teemed with turtles, water snakes, fish, filamentous algae, and mayflies. In recent years, students began noting fewer tadpoles and frogs; more rarely still, fish, turtles, or snakes. Some improvements were made—installing a pond pump, adding plants for water filtration and erosion control—but students grew thirsty to learn and do more. Capezzuti, realizing this required more sophisticated and thorough testing, approached City as Our Campus℠ Director Adam Nye for support. The result: the partnership between the North Hills Campus and Aquatic Edge Consulting.

“The students were super excited to help plan and implement a pond improvement project,” reports Capezzuti. The first meeting took place in January, when Aquatic Edge experts Tim Wood and Dana Rizzo met with students to discuss factors affecting pond health. Fifth graders then trekked to the icy pond with Wood and Rizzo to drill for water samples and learn proper collection techniques. The samples were labeled and sent to the Penn State Extension lab for testing.

Students interpreted the results to determine additional testing needs for their next session with Aquatic Edge. During that visit, the class learned about non-point source pollution and canoed to the pond’s inflow site for more samples and testing. In a third visit by Aquatic Edge, the specialists led a discussion on the best native plant species for the fifth graders to plant to improve the pond’s health.

“Our students are getting real world experience by helping to solve real world problems,” asserts Capezzuti, acknowledging that answers won’t always come easily. “I believe it is helpful to see that we don’t always have the answers to everything, that the continual pursuit of knowledge and truth is the essence of science.”