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High School Detectives: Investigating plankton’s connection to water quality

Plankton up close; staff photo

What IS that?!” an Advanced Placement biology student from Broadneck High School exclaims, squinting into the microscope eyepiece. “Ooooh…” squeals another. “Check out this thing! It looks like a segmented hair, but it’s totally moving on its own!”

This can only mean one thing: it’s plankton identification lab time at the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary!

The Plankton Land Use and Nutrient Studies field trip—offered to high school students in Anne Arundel, Harford and Prince George’s counties—provides a student-driven, investigative and meaningful educational experience based on real life environmental issues. Participants learn firsthand the causes and issues associated with sediment and nutrient runoff and the resulting degradation of our waterways.

Their experience begins back in the classroom where they explore nutrient enrichment by culturing algae with varying amounts of liquid fertilizer. The teachers work with Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve educators to prepare students for their fieldwork.

Natural Filters Did you know oysters remove nutrients from the water just by eating algae? One oyster can filter about 30 gallons of water a day! Learn more about these impressive bivalves and what Marylanders can do to help increase their presence in the bay!

On-site—at either the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center, Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary or Patuxent River Park—students collect water samples from a pontoon boat, learn to identify plankton and participate in a nutrient limitation experiment. They then perform tests for pH balance, temperature and water clarity, as well as levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.

They round out their field trip by conducting a bioassay—a test method used in measuring the response of a living animal or plant tissue to the toxicity of the chemical contaminants—to uncover the grazing capacity of oysters. This illustrates the important role that filter feeders play in helping to clean an ecosystem.

Through experiential learning, students have shown improvements in attitude and knowledge toward the health of our waterways. This program provides a model for teacher training, a curriculum and meaningful watershed educational experiences to help students increase their understanding of their direct role in the health of the Chesapeake Bay and their role as stewards in helping to enhance, protect and restore this iconic estuary.

Classroom observation; staff photo

The Plankton Land Use and Nutrient Studies program is made possible through a partnership between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Society for Ocean Sciences, and Morgan State University’s Patuxent Environmental and Aquatic Research Laboratory, which received funding through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Currently in their fourth year of offering this high quality, rigorous environmental science field trip, sites are looking to expand to other interested high schools.

To learn more about the project or to have your students participate, please email


Article by Amy Henry—environmental education specialist.
Appears in Vol. 20, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2017.