Education / Environment

The Bronx River as science lab

Students at Banana Kelly High School learn in an outdoor classroom

By Stephanie Smith

Photo by Stephanie Smith
Banana Kelly High School students (left to right) Valerie Cazeres, Jauna Williams and Nia Johnson on the Bronx River at Shoelace Park.

At a small dock on the Bronx River, students from Banana Kelly High School get ready to dip buckets into the water. A few moments ago, as they walked down East 219th Street to Shoelace Park on a chilly autumn day, they were fooling around. Now they’re all business.

They’re going to test the river to see how salty it is. It’s a whole new approach to hands-on science. For a school that has no lab facilities, the river has become an essential learning ground.

Banana Kelly has been using the river to teach science and math since the fall of 2003. “We want them to look at numbers, wonder what they mean,” explained Nick Vitale, a science teacher who helped launch the program.

He said he noticed a change in his students right away. Students who previously didn’t care have shown genuine interest.

At Shoelace Park, the students break into groups, and lower their buckets into the water to take samples. Using tools introduced in class, they measure the clarity and salt content of the water. Then they compare the results to those they compiled the week before after analyzing the water taken from the river at the northern end of Garrison Street

The Bronx River Alliance started teaching science teachers to use the river as an outdoor classroom in 2001. Held approximately eight times a year, the workshops bring environmental activist and educators together with the goal of making students aware of their surroundings. In the South Bronx, more than 50 organizations now use the river in this way, including youth groups, communities and schools.

River trips have turned the students into scientists. They make air temperature and weather observations. They test for nitrates–chemicals that at high levels can cause algae blooms and kill fish.

The students also record what the surroundings were like when they conducted their experiments, and how things like shade or sunlight might have affected their results. “It’s where they get to write their predictions; say what they think will happen based on what they observed in previous weeks,” explained math teacher Annie Lerew.

The students were prepped for what to expect and focus on. Sitting in groups at tables in the classroom, they discussed the previous week’s findings, when the water was brackish–a mix of salt and fresh water.

“What do you think we will get today? Lerew asked. “Turbidity tells you how dirty the water is, and is measured in cm,” she reminded them. “Salinity tests the salt content and parts per thousand.” 

The half-hour subway ride to the river gave the students a chance to review their notes, chat, and anticipate the upcoming experiment. Once they got to the shore, their sense of pride in their work became apparent. “You take the weather temperature first,” Nia Johnson, a freshman, instructed a reporter. “The salinity machine shows the white line under 0,” she continued matter-of-factly, “so it’s drinkable as far as salt.”

“I can’t wait for the lab on pH and dissolved oxygen,” another student said. “That’s going to be fun. There’s a strip of paper and you put it in water. Turns a color based on the acidity.”

“I wish we could make one of those rainbow in a bottle things, where you add stuff and it bubbles and comes out pretty,” chimed-in a student named Jauna Williams, recalling a scene from one of her favorite TV shows.

The Bronx River served as the students’ classroom for three class periods at a time every week through December. “Since the program started we have definitely noticed a change in the students, they are more involved, care more about their work,” said Vitale.

“The first group that went through the program showed a significant improvement in Math A test scores,” he continued. Although he acknowledged that the higher scores “could be due to other factors as well,” he said, “We are encouraged by what we see; obviously we feel that it is beneficial–otherwise we wouldn’t do it.”

In addition to teaching the teachers, the Bronx River Alliance helps them deal with the bureaucracy. “Teachers have a hard enough time with testing and adhering to standards without worrying about the local environment and getting field trip slips in on time,” says Anne-Marie Runfola, the alliance’s deputy director of programs.

“There’s enough desire to use the local community in the classroom, but teachers often have trouble in how that will tie in with their curriculum,” she continued. “We provide the administrative and emotional support.”

Feedback from workshops, from surveys and from scientists involved in the education team all point to the success of the program, according to Runfola. “Students gain confidence and are absent less often,” she says. “It also leads people to discover new strengths. A student that lacks in math or reading might possess a physical intelligence and know about the natural world, which is reinforced through outdoor learning.”

Asked if they prefer river trips over traditional classroom teaching, the Banana Kelly students answer with an almost unanimous yes.

“Some places we don’t like the smell,” said Iaisha Waiters, a first year student and resident of the South Bronx, “but when you get use to it, it’s good.”

“Yeah, it’s hands on,” Dantea Hudson, another student, added. “First I thought it was strange, but now it’s cool. Just as long as you don’t go in the river.”

A school room can’t compare to the riverside view. “It reminds me of those lakes that be in China, like on the calendars,” Nia Johnson observed.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2008 edition of The Hunts Point Express.

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