Investigating Macros with Students in the 5th Grade


Guest blog post by Alanna Doughty, educator, Lakes Environmental Association, Bridgton. This project is supported by the Vital Signs Freshwater Mini-grant.

I am an environmental educator outside of the school, working with lots of different classes. This year I embarked on a macroinvertebrate and water quality analysis with 5th graders.

“…So then, we will get back to the classroom with all of our information that we collected at the brook and put it on a website called Vital Signs. This is a website for Maine students and Maine scientists collecting data about lots of different questions. This is big time stuff! This is for real! Other students and scientists will see our data and comment on it!” (Extra arm waving for emphasis). “Now, usually this is for Middle School students, but I thought maybe we could try it. Of course, if you’re not up for it I can go find another class to work with…”

Photo by VS user Wetlands4me

“We can do it! We are practically middle schoolers!”

This was the response I got from each class I went to. Students want to be challenged, but what they really want is to be outside. This fall found 8 5th grade classes streamside collecting macroinvertebrates in our district and while we had fun, things did not always go smoothly.

Photo by VS user Wetlands4me

Here are some things I learned:

  • Students need to see the end result before they can understand why or how to do something. We decided “in the spring we are going to know what we are doing!” Embark on a field day of collecting without the expectation of posting to Vital Signs. This could be a day to practice properly using equipment and becoming familiar with the data survey, and offer an opportunity for data survey reflection and improvement.
  • During our inside field station prep students were confused at stations with written instructions, they were not reading instructions independently. Each station needed an adult to help progress things forward. Parent volunteers or high school students that are available to help inside and even outside would be great. Students benefited from prompting, reading aloud together and guided group discussion.
  • I created a simplified field data sheet for the students.
  • We needed more time! We planned 1.5 hour trips in walking distance from the school and with an experienced field team we might have been fine, (of course I would prefer to be there all day). But, a solid 1.5 hours for each class at the site collecting, identifying and taking photos is what we are planning for the spring- not including walking or bus or lunch time, (totaling around 2.5 hours for the endeavor).
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    Photo by VS user Flyfishing622
  • We generally posted one field observation from each class. One smaller class we were able to post 3, and some classes we returned without one single good photo and did not post anything! That was ok too, we will try again in the spring.
  • Students LOVE to be outside. And macroinvertebrates are awesome.
  • All of our fifth graders now readily recognize damselfly, dragonfly and mayfly nymphs. How cool is that?

Stay tuned for our spring post!

This opportunity is generously supported by a grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund (MOHF). MOHF is a program through which proceeds from the sale of a dedicated instant lottery ticket (currently Lucky Catch) are used to support outdoor recreation and natural resource conservation. For more information visit MOHF.


As teachers we all know that the best laid plans are often scattered to the wind, sometimes the very moment that a class begins. With schedules, assemblies, fire drills, specials, lunch, absent students- the list can go on and on. So now imagine yourself being outside of the school, scheduling all these things. Crazy time. As such, this spring did not pan out the way that I had hoped. But I do think we accomplished some cool things. And I know that next year we will try again. That's the thing about teachers, when we find something cool that we want our students to be a part of, we will just keep trying. Maybe some days we think about bashing our head on the desk, but we don't give up.

This spring, instead of getting back out to the brook for a second macroinvertebrate assessment, 4 classes embarked on a large research project and studied the Casco Bay watershed, water quality, aquatic ecosystems and life cycles, and water pollution. Our culminating project was a large mural that spanned the stage in the cafeteria so that students K-5 could be a part of the colorful learning that was taking place. Three other classes in another school released trout fry into the water body that they had completed their bioassessment in during the fall, and we took footage to be able to create a video that showed our trout fry below the surface. Super fun.

All classes visited our local fish hatchery in Casco, Maine to learn about what they do and why they are there, and how the fish grow and are eventually released to provide stock for fisher-people visiting from near and far. (We also arrived on a day when a local biologist was clipping fins for release-date identification for the future).

So, although our plans went awry more than once, I know that we will continue to reach students, get them to the field, show them how to ask meaningful questions, and how to look for meaningful answers, give them opportunities to immerse themselves in learning. Thank you to GMRI and the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund for helping to launch this program with the Lakes Environmental Association and our surrounding schools!