When it comes to learning about the environment, there's no substitute for hands-on experience. A few ecologically minded students in the higher levels of Cedar Creek High School's Environmental Magnet program got just that April 10 as they surveyed Indian Cabin Creek, upstream from Egg Harbor City Lake, with the help of a pair of AmeriCorps Watershed Ambassadors.

Teacher Erin Sharpe, who is part of the magnet program, said the survey offered students a valuable, real-world application of the lessons they have been learning in the classroom.

"It's a good lab skill to have, to have that hands-on experience to apply to what we've been learning in class about water pollution," said Sharpe, who lives in South Egg Harbor.

Cedar Creek High School's Environmental Science Magnet is one of two four-year focused science tracks at the school and is meant to give students interested in pursuing environment-related fields of study in college a head start. The program was designed in collaboration with Richard Stockton College and offers enrolled students a chance to earn two courses worth of college credit at a reduced rate.

The April 10 lesson, which nine Magnet students attended, was conducted by AmeriCorps Watershed Ambassadors Kassandra Archer and Joanna Marino. The students trawled the bottom of the creek with nets, taking out samples, which they examined for specific species of macroinvertebrates that are indicator species.

An indicator species is a species whose presence or absence in a given environment is a sign of the overall health of its ecosystem. The species the students sought April 10, including the gattis fly, the mayfly and annelids, are rated on a sliding scale of tolerance. Finding a species with little tolerance for pollution is a positive indicator, and vice versa.

Students checked the samples until they found 100 species, at which point Archer plugged the data into a spreadsheet and determined the creek scored 61 out of 100, which is considered good. Their data will be submitted to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Cedar Creek senior Alyssa Lutgen was one of the students who took part in the lesson. Lutgen, who lives in Mullica Township, said she grew up exploring the forests and streams around her house, so she enjoyed the exercise.

"I just love it," Lutgen said. "I love being out here in the stream and catching stuff. It's just interesting for me."

Following the lesson, Archer certified the students as volunteer water monitors, meaning they are qualified to conduct the same water-quality test at other bodies of water in the area and submit their findings to the DEP.

Archer, for whom certifying students and other community members as volunteer water monitors is just one part of her job as a Watershed Ambassador, said she was impressed by the students' attitudes.

"They all just did a great job," Archer said. "They got right in the stream. They didn't complain about their boots being filled with muck. They knew there were eels swimming around, and they were troopers."

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