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California University students assess water quality for region

​Canoes turned into classrooms when Cal U’s Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences gave Carmichaels High School students a chance to learn on the region’s waterways.

Cal U students and more than a dozen high schoolers climbed into canoes to conduct an inventory of fish and macroinvertebrates in two unassessed tributaries that flow into the Youghiogheny River.

Biology professor Dr. David Argent and emeritus professor Dr. William Kimmel led the excursion, which was funded through a grant from the Pennsylvania American Water Authority in collaboration with Cal U, Carmichaels, Ohiopyle State Park and the local chapter of Trout Unlimited.

The group canoed from Dawson to Layton, Pa The canoes were provided by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, with launch and take-out assistance from Hazelbakers Recreational Services.

Another survey, on Oct. 26, will be conducted on shore at Bruner Run Takeout, just north of Ohiopyle State Park along the Youghiogheny River Water Trail.

The hands-on activities put classroom learning into perspective, Argent said.

“If (students) can see that all the classes they take matter, and if they can see how the classes they take figure into the bigger picture of things, I think they’re generally going to be more interested in what they’re studying and why they’re studying it.”

In the past, Argent has conducted outdoors research with students from Connellsville Area High School, and he has presented program overviews for Canon-McMillan and Mount Lebanon students.

The Carmichaels canoe excursion allowed the young researchers to investigate streams that are inaccessible from roadways.

“The primary objective of the grant was to provide a baseline assessment of water quality for the region, which Pennsylvania American Water is very concerned about,” Argent said.

After taking “spot samples” to check water quality, pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen and conductivity, the students surveyed fish and macroinvertebrate populations.
Students used a non-lethal sampling technique that relies on electricity to briefly stun the fish in a small area, so they can be counted, identified and released back into their habitat. The fish typically recover within five to 10 seconds, Argent said.

 “We evaluate their behavior and if they’re exhibiting the right kind of behavior … then I know we’re doing the right things in terms of sampling,” he explained.

Counting macroinvertebrates, such as snails, clams and aquatic insects, provides information about water quality.
“Their presence tells us an awful lot about past conditions and gives us good readings on temperature and conductivity,” Argent explained.

With that information, Pennsylvania American Water can make decisions about areas that might benefit from habitat improvements or water quality mitigation.

Argent said his work with Carmichaels students is comparable to the fieldwork done by his college classes.

“It’ s all about giving the students valuable, hands-on learning experiences and opportunities,” he said.

“We’ve had high school students come to Cal U because they are interested in what we’re showing them.”