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Students collect information no lake Michigan agency has collected
Thursday, October 23, 2003

Pioneer Press (Michigan, U.S.) by Kenneth L.R. Patchen

Students at Lake Forest and Highland Park high schools are joining with State Sen. Susan Garrett, D-29th of Lake Forest, to obtain information that no other federal, state or local agency concerned with Lake Michigan water quality has been able to get.

The target: E. coli bacteria in Lake Michigan and in Lake Forest ravines.

The project will gather data at a time of year when studies of E. coli levels are not done. No one is swimming at the beaches, so consequences of high levels of E. coli bacteria in the water do not affect swimmers.

E. coli bacteria, or Escherichia coli bacteria, are present in the intestines. When found in water in sufficient quantity, they indicate fecal pollution and can cause diarrhea when ingested. High counts of E. coli during summer force beaches to close for swimming until those levels drop to what is considered an appropriate level.

Highland Park High School math teacher Luis Vasquez and biology teacher Shannon Buchanan have designed a project to teach both math and biology concepts in a real-world situation. At Lake Forest High School, teacher Mary Beth Nawor is getting ready for the same type of project with 75 of her students, something she has been doing for three years. This time, however, she and her students also will be helping Garrett learn more about area water quality.

The results of all this student work at community beaches and ravines will help efforts by the Clean Water Trust Fund to locate chronic Lake Michigan water pollution problems.

Garrett said she was "thrilled" the work is being done.

"We wouldn't be able to have that information otherwise, and it's extremely relevant because we'll be able to compare seasons and see if the air temperature and water have any relevance to high E. coli levels," Garrett said. "We have all the E. coli testing during the summer months."

In the past, Nawor has conducted field work with students at the east fork of the north branch of the Chicago River, Shaw Prairie and Prairie Wolf Slough.

"I like to get my kids out doing as much science as I can," she said. "We test for fertilizer in water. We test for benthic macro-invertebrates. It's much better than learning out of the book."

This time, however, her students will be looking for bacteria they cannot see.

Vasquez said he wanted a way to teach his students about the real-world application of exponential equations. While reading about Lake Michigan's water quality problems with E. coli, he realized test data would provide the numbers to use for math applications. With Buchanan's biology students involved with data collection, he knew he had a complete project with community value.

"It will be a public program," he said. "We will join hands with the Lake County Health Department."

Students will conduct research on the topic, write the study, prepare a multimedia presentation for public education and present their findings to the public.

Buchanan said her students will do water sampling and grow E. coli for study. They will grow bacteria, stain them, identify them under a microscope and conduct Internet-based research about the problems they find.

"We've never done this before on this scale," she said of her classroom.

The project at Highland Park High School will continue through the semester, and once a week the teachers and students will focus on work that needs to be done on it. Garrett is scheduled to speak with the students about the problems they are working on.

Mark Pfister of the Lake County Health Department also may speak. He would discuss the role of the Health Department in water quality testing and the impact of beach closings on a community, especially in the summer.

Nawor said the work her students do probably will be of great interest to residents in Lake Forest. Already, with little publicity, she said residents have offered their ravines as areas from which her students can collect samples.

"People are really interested," she said.

Students "are actually real excited about it because it affects them," Buchanan said. "It's true research and it has a purpose. It's a very hands-on class. What you learn about bacteria, you can apply to the real world."

Blake E. Dermer, 18, a Highland Park High School senior, said the students are looking forward to the project. He thinks it will provide a public benefit and students are glad to provide information about an issue of concern to the community.

Highland Park senior Josť Nevarez said the project is interesting because of its hands-on aspects.

"We have just started growing bacteria in our chemistry class and hope to get out into the field next week," he said. "It's going to be a pretty long project."

Nevarez said some of the work can be done in the classroom. The analysis and interpretation of data will probably be more of a homework assignment.

Garrett wants to determine why Lake Michigan beaches are being polluted with bacteria. Summer water samples were tested by the University of Washington to identify possible pollution sources: Gulls, wildlife, humans or a combination of them. The initial studies are expected to be done by December.


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