Portland 5th-graders learn about water quality at Capisic Pond

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PORTLAND — In a hands-on science lesson, fifth-graders at Longfellow Elementary followed the flow of water from their Stevens Avenue school to Capisic Pond last week to learn how human behavior can impact water quality.

The Longfellow students joined wetland ecology students from the University of Southern Maine to explore various aspects of the Capisic watershed and to talk about how yardscaping decisions can help prevent pollution.

The USM students were led by Karen Wilson, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, who reached out to fifth-grade teacher Richard Johnson to suggest the joint exercise.

Wilson, who has a child enrolled in the Portland Public Schools, said it’s been her goal for a while to connect the university with local elementary schools, but the difficulty was finding just the right match.

For the past several years, Johnson said, fifth-graders at Longfellow have worked with the Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District on a Youth Yardscaping program, which is part of the larger citywide Greener Neighborhoods, Cleaner Streams effort, according to Kat Munson, the education and outreach coordinator for the district.

“What we’re trying to do is raise awareness about how humans impact on local waterways and to show the kids that what they do at home matters, even if they don’t have a stream, pond or wetland right in their own backyard,” Munson said.

Wilson said the city “just undertook a big restoration effort” at Capisic Pond to recover more of the open water area, as well as improve the overall wetland habitat.

According to a sign at the park, Capisic Pond was created when a dam was constructed along Capisic Brook in the 1600s to power a gristmill. Initially the pond was nearly eight acres in size, but over time the area of open water was reduced to about 2 acres.

That’s why the city stepped in two years ago to dredge the pond and restore the open water to about 4 acres, the sign said. As part of the project, the city also removed large swaths of cattails from the edge of the pond and planted a diverse mix of native vegetation.

Through the Youth Yardscaping unit, Johnson said his students study how erosion, pet waste, soap and fertilizers in particular affect the watershed. “What we hope is that the kids are learning that practices they do at home can have an impact on water quality.”

What he especially likes about the collaboration with the USM students is that the younger kids get the opportunity “to learn so much about what they can do with science when they get older.”

Trevor Brackley, one of the USM students on hand last week, said he became an environmental studies major because he spends most of his time outdoors and “has a continuous fascination with how it all interacts together.”

He was testing tap water samples the Longfellow students brought along to measure the acidity levels, along with other indicators of overall water quality.

Nearby Longfellow students Kaysen Pitula and Malcom Sprague were using a net to skim the pond water to see what they could see.

Both were excited to catch several tiny amphibians. Over in the cattails, meanwhile, Shea Fenton, Poppy Chamberlain and Ikram Aman were learning about what types of species call wetlands home.

Chamberlain said it was a lot of fun walking down from the school and Aman said “we’re learning a lot of stuff.”

On the bridge near the Capisic Brook outfall, Santino Cavallaor and Leo Stone were eagerly pointing out a tiny frog to their fellow students, while Johnson and Wilson took in the whole scene with a smile.

“If the kids are having fun and asking questions that’s what we want,” Wilson said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Leo Stone, left, and Santino Cavallaro watch a frog in the Capisic Brook outfall last week.

Kaysen Pitula, a fifth-grader at Longfellow Elementary, uses a net to skim the surface of Capisic Pond last week.

The fifth-grade class at Longfellow Elementary walked down to Capisic Pond last week to learn about how human behavior affects water quality.