Are there water fleas and bristle worms in your pond water? Do ponds in New Jersey contain the same organisms as ponds in Texas? Australia? Poland?
Through Bucket Buddies—a collaborative online project developed and administered by The Center for Improved Engineering Science and Education (CIESE) at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey—elementary students from more than 150 schools in 33 states and 6 countries have taken samples from local ponds and teamed up to answer the question: Are the organisms found in pond water the same all over the world? The project runs twice a year (spring and fall) and provides teachers with related lessons and extension ideas that address National Science Education Standards (both content and process) for approximately two months of classroom learning.
This article shares the experience of some of the teachers and students who have participated in the Spring 2003 Bucket Buddies cycle.
The Adventure Begins
Typically, teachers used the Bucket Buddies project as an enrichment to or extension of their science program. To introduce the project, most teachers presented students with the question, “Are the organisms found in pond water the same all over the world?” and listened to students’ thoughts on the issue.
The teachers told students that they had an opportunity to participate in a real-world investigation with student researchers all over the globe. Project participants would be collecting and identifying macroinvertebrates (animals lacking a backbone and visible without the aid of a microscope) from a local pond water sample. Afterwards, they would report their findings online on the project’s website, compare their findings with that of other participating classes, and look for relationships and trends in the collected data.
With the project question already formulated, the first thing most classes did was use prior knowledge to brainstorm and develop hypotheses. Even very young students participated in the project. A first-grade teacher from Arizona shared her class’s experience:
We adapted the question to, “Do you think the other classes from around the world will find the same creatures in their pond water as we will?”
The children had very good explanations for their hypotheses, such as, “My uncle had tadpoles in the pond by his house in California and we have tadpoles here, so I think we’ll find the same things all over the world.”
Another student reported, “I had fireflies by my house when I lived in Pennsylvania, but there aren’t any here, so I think we’ll find different creatures in different places.”
After a good discussion, we took a tally of our hypotheses: 8 children said, “Yes” and 10 children said, “No.”
Depending on the age and ability of the students, some teachers chose to have the students develop a hypothesis as a whole-class activity, other teachers had students work in teams or individually. Students who participated in this project cycle were split almost evenly as to whether they thought the organisms would be the same or different. A few of the fifth-grade students hypothesized that the organisms would be similar but not exactly the same (i.e., same genus, different species).
The Macroinvertebrates Are Here
After discussing their hypotheses, most classes set out to collect a water sample from a pond near their school. In some cases, if it was not practical for the students to go to the water source themselves, the teachers, particularly those in urban areas, collected the water either the night before or in the morning and brought it to the classroom for study. (It’s best to do the identification within 24 hours of collection because the longer pond water sits in the classroom, the more likely it will begin to stagnate and smell.)
A good sample should contain water from the shallow surface water near the pond’s edge as well as from the bottom. Additional guidelines for collection are listed in the “Teacher Area” of the project website (see Internet Resources).
Once students had obtained the pond water samples, it was time to identify the macroinvertebrates that were collected. The project website’s “Reference Materials” page featured links to various online identification resources and a list of field guides, such as the often-used Pond Life (Reid 2001), to help students and teachers with the identification process. The “Teacher Area” page included a lesson plan called “Identifying the Macroinvertebrates” and a printable, illustrated checklist of the most commonly found freshwater macroinvertebrates.
The most commonly found macroinvertebrate was the water flea or daphnia. Daphnia are easy for young children to identify with a hand lens because of the jerky, spinning way they move. Most classes reported finding scuds (a type of Amphipod) and several varieties of worms. Several classes reported finding all of the specimens pictured in the online identification guide.
In addition to the lessons provided on the project’s website, several classes completed projects to learn more about identification and pond life. For example, one third-grade class made flashcards of the macroinvertebrates to help the following year’s class have an easier time identifying what they find. A sixth-grade class from Texas made field guides to explain their findings and provide information for other classes. They took photographs of the specimens with their microscope and showed them to the whole class on a large-screen monitor. They also made a slide show with titles and music.
Ask the Expert
If students had difficulty identifying one of the macroinvertebrates, they were invited to draw or describe the creature and send it to CIESE online expert Neil Holzman. Holzman, an aquatic biologist and former high school teacher, helped students identify the organisms and was careful to answer questions on an elementary level.
For example, to a first-grade class from Kentucky who e-mailed him for help in identifying “little black particles,” Holzman sent the following response:
Attached is a picture of a water flea, a tiny crustacean related to crayfish and crabs. They are 2–3 mm long, sometimes occur in large numbers, and swim jerkily and not in a straight line. If your specimens fit these characteristics, then you probably have water fleas. If not, then you might want to draw a picture and send it to me. If you send me a picture, also send me the answers to these questions:
1. Does it have legs? If so, how many?
2. Does it swim? If so, how does it move?
3. Are they really black? If not, what color are they?
Similarly, when a frustrated third-grade student from California wasn’t having much luck collecting and wrote for advice, Holzman replied:
Sampling can be tricky. When there is little food floating in the water column (from just below the surface to just above the bottom), the “little beasties” look elsewhere for food. They might be lurking in the decaying material at the bottom or they might be attached to rocks or plants.
In addition, there may just not be enough of them to show up in a small sample jar. Think about this: How likely is it that you would capture a flying insect with just a few random sweeps of the net?
The fact that you’re willing to try again is a good sign. Be persistent. Life abounds...
After completing the identification process, classes reviewed their findings; tallied the number of each macroinvertebrate found; recorded descriptions and illustrations of any species they couldn’t identify; and wrote up an identification report.
Classes submitted their reports, along with representative drawings, photographs, tables, or graphs, to the project leader for publishing on the “Student Area” of the project website. Several teachers posted their classes’ results on their own class or school websites, which were then linked to the project website.
When all the reports were posted, students excitedly viewed their reports and read reports from other classes. Participants compared their findings to determine:
- Which, if any, of the organisms were the same in other, more distant water sources;
- Relationships and trends in the data collected by all project participants; and
- Whether or not the information supported or did not support their hypothesis(es).
Students and teachers used the website’s “Discussion Area” to converse with or ask questions of other participants. This was the area where students, after reading other classes’ conclusions and revisiting their hypotheses, stated their conclusions in a final report.
A student from California wrote:
We thought that ponds from different locations, especially on different continents, would contain different organisms. We were surprised to see that wasn’t the case!
While not all ponds contained all the same life, at least in the samples taken, they did all contain at least some of what the others also contained. For instance, we found crayfish and so did the class in Australia. We found water boatmen, so did the classes in Poland.
So, we concluded that pond life all over the world must contain similar invertebrate life.
This entry from a group of Rhode Island third- and fourth-grade students illustrated the learning that takes place when students participate in a collaborative project.
Our hypothesis was that we would not find the same macroinvertebrates in ponds around the world.
However, after studying the data from ponds throughout the United States and Canada, we found that we all had basically the same kinds of macros. Some had more of one type than we did or less than we did, but we all had the same types of macros. We were very surprised by this.
We learned something new from this project and had a lot of fun. Some of us felt bad about being wrong, but we know that in science, we will often be wrong. Some great discoveries have been made because a scientist was wrong!!
An Illinois teacher wrote:
What I personally found most interesting was the amazing similarity in pond organisms practically worldwide (or at least in middle latitudes). There are undoubtedly species differences but the “assortment” is so alike it’s amazing.
Because most of the participating classes were self-contained, it was easy for teachers to integrate the project into their curriculum and do some of the suggested related reading and language arts activities, such as making field guides and creative writing exercises.
One class in Rhode Island wrote “messages” from macroinvertebrates, such as this “Letter from a Leech” below:
Hi. I am a leech. I lived very happily in Madison Pond until one day two teachers scooped me up in a big net and dumped me and many of my friends into a large container filled with water, mud, and weeds from my pond. The next day I was scooped up again, but this time they put me in a bowl. Then a whole classroom of children started staring at me. They were picking me up and putting magnifying glasses on me. I was scared! The children wanted to know about me, so let me tell you about myself.
I have two suckers. One is at the end of my body and the other one is at the front of my body. My mouth is in the front of my sucker. If you cut me in half (please don’t!) you will see that I have colorless blood. I have no teeth and no jaws. I have no gills and no lungs. I breathe through my skin.
We leeches come in different patterns and colors. I swim up and down quickly and I attach both my suckers from one end to the other. You wouldn’t like to pick me up because as soon as you do you will see me attaching my suckers to you.
I hope you understand a little about my life and me. I am back in Madison Pond now and hope I stay there. My visit was interesting, but I like my pond better.
Many teachers pointed out that the project also had a built-in geographic component because students were interested in finding out where the partner schools were located on a map.
Another teacher shared that the project provided a “teachable moment”—a lesson on regionalisms—when her students realized that a “yabby” from the Barossa Valley in Australia; a “crawdad” from the White Mountains of Arizona; a “crawfish” in Mandeville, Louisiana; and a “crayfish” in Lexington, Massachusetts, were all the same animal!
Doing Science Together
Participation in Bucket Buddies gave students the opportunity to investigate their own environment and connect with peers all over the world. Seeing their findings and analyses published online helped students gain a sense of accomplishment as they realized their input was important to the success of the project.
The collaboration among classes was the feature that transformed an activity into an adventure. By collaborating online, students were able to compare, contrast, or combine similar information collected in different or dissimilar locations. They communicated with classes conducting the same investigation at the same time, allowing all participants to explore the topic in more depth and take identification one step further.
Teachers, too, felt the benefits of collaboration. In addition to finding a new way to engage students in learning, there was the benefit of having professionals available to coordinate the project, publish the reports, and answer questions about both the science content and the technology involved in submitting reports and retrieving information. They also enjoyed the opportunity to share classroom anecdotes and enrichment ideas with colleagues.
A fifth-grade teacher from Texas wrote, “The whole project is a super way for students to practice scientific processes and model analytical thinking for others. I have to tell you, this was the best way I’ve ever started a school year science program.”
Participation in this project embodied effective teaching and supported students’ natural curiosity. Effective teaching allows students to do what they naturally want to do—explore the world around them. Online collaboration extends the boundaries of that world.
Carol Shields (email@example.com) is an Internet training specialist at the Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Connecting to the Standards
This article relates to the following National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996):
Content Standards Grades K–8
Standard A: Science as Inquiry
- Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
- Understanding about scientific inquiry
Standard C: Life Science
- The characteristics of organisms
- Life cycles of organisms
- Organisms and environments
National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Reid, G.K. 2001. Pond Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Bucket Buddies Project Overview