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SCH students take deep analytical dive into the Wissahickon

For the past 25 years, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy students have been testing water samples, evaluating stream biodiversity, and analyzing the surrounding riparian zone at the Wissahickon Creek, which supplies drinking water to one-third of Philadelphians.

From their earliest days at SCH, students are taught to be thoughtful stewards of the Wissahickon Creek and surrounding woods.
“Going down to the creek is like a rite of passage for SCH students,” science teacher and department chair Scott Stein said. “They all remember that.”

Stein and his fellow science teachers, including Lisa Queeno, Ann Zalasky, and Kim Eberle-Wang, recently took the Grade 11 biology classes to the Wissahickon to survey macroinvertebrate species and conduct chemical testing of the water. The students also examined the stream habitat using the same EPA Stream Habitat assessment that stream survey groups use nationally. This assessment looks at factors such as the condition of the banks, fine particle sediment levels, and litter.
Luna Moskal ’20 said her favorite part of the lab was going to the creek to pick up “critters,” such as mayflies and snail eggs. Some of her major takeaways from the lab were how human activity can have such a large impact on rivers and streams, and how heavy rainstorms can then lead to changes in nitrate levels, which affect the oxygen in the water, which then affects the creatures in the water.
“I drive by it [the Wissahickon] every day on my way back home,” Moskal said. “I used to look at it and think, ‘Oh, it’s just water. It looks pretty.’ But now I think, ‘There are actual things in there. There’s life down there.’”
Stein and Queeno said the water quality of the creek has fluctuated over the years and can even change day to day. This year, they found many pollution-tolerant species (leeches or snails) and only a handful of species that are sensitive to pollution, such as mayflies.
Students also looked at the turbidity (cloudiness) of the water and conducted pH, phosphate, dissolved oxygen, and nitrate testing. In addition, they tested for fecal coliform, which may come from animal wastes or human waste emanating from wastewater treatment plants. SCH’s science teachers noted that fecal coliforms are expected to be present, but in low levels; high levels mean that there may be pathogens in the water. They advised students not to swim in the water or even go in knee deep. (High levels from sewage treatment plants often close beaches for swimming in the summer.)
Students also used the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping tool to analyze land use and population density in the Wissahickon Watershed. Using this software, students can plug in the school’s zip code and view sites around the Wissahickon that are water dischargers or handle hazardous waste, or sites that report to the EPA for toxic releases and air pollution. Areas with high population density are a sign of probable high water runoff.  
“It just shows that we need to do a better job as a community to help clean it,” Abbie Rorke ’20 said. “As a school, we do try to limit all the runoff that goes to it, like [with] the rain gardens. However, just from around Chestnut Hill, and the school as well, there is runoff that will always get into it.”
The science teachers sent students on a scavenger hunt on campus to see the many ways  SCH reduces stormwater runoff, through its rain gardens, the Stacy Levy downspout sculpture, permeable parking lots, underground stormwater dry wells, and rain barrels. The playing fields were also constructed with special water drainage and retention capabilities, so that stormwater can infiltrate and make its way into the groundwater below. Stein noted that one of the driving forces behind SCH’s efforts to reduce its footprint and impact on the Wissahickon is CFO Frank Aloise. He also mentioned that the school has specific plans to reduce runoff from the future McCausland Lower School & Commons, situated at the edge of Wissahickon Park and slated to open next fall.
Students also analyzed water flow at their own homes and consulted with parents about how to reduce runoff.

The final piece of the analysis was a Wissahickon Creek Report Card written by each student, giving each factor tested a letter grade, giving the overall creek health a grade and making a specific recommendation on how to improve any factor that earned a low grade.
“I like watching the kids find something they’re excited about—learning about the creek, doing hands-on tests, or going back to their house to look at runoff management. Whatever they get excited about is fantastic,” Queeno said.
Stein said he loves to see the results of the fecal coliform testing when he gets into school. Using his trademark wit, Stein shared with a laugh: “It’s like unwrapping presents at holiday time in the bio lab when we get to open the incubator door and check the fecal coliform count in the morning.”