Edward Little High School science teacher Kim Finnerty, who is in her second year of teaching chemistry through hands-on agriculture, is branching out.
Her students are still growing plants in the high school greenhouse. They’re still “garden buddies” teaching gardening to elementary students.
But on Monday, agriculture students embarked on a new project: shore up buffer zones along Lake Auburn’s basin to protect the community’s drinking water from runoff pollution.
Standing on the shore, students wearing orange were quizzed by Lynne Richard, who works for the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission.
From a tree trunk, Richard explained that clean drinking water doesn’t just happen. It’s easy for water to get polluted.
In 2012, Maine had a warm winter followed by heavy rain in a short duration.
“Two hundred dead fish washed up on the shore of Lake Auburn. We were alarmed,” Richard said. Watershed commission members studied how the fish kill happened. The conclusion was the lake was subjected to a heavy amount of phosphorous that washed out from 80 to 100 sources.
Richard asked students, “What is phosphorous and what is its role?”
“It’s an element,” answered Mac Weekley. “It feeds things.”
Yes, when added to plants, phosphorous helps them grow — good news until there’s too much. “In the lake that’s what happened,” Richard said. Too much phosphorous created an algae bloom.
“What happens after an algae bloom?”
Things died, creating a dead zone, students said.
“Correct,” Richard said. As plants in the water decompose, oxygen is removed from the water, which is what killed the fish. “Fish, like trout, went belly up. We don’t want that.”
After a talk, the third period agriculture class walked up by the stream that feeds into the basin. A large heron flew by as students made their way into the woods. They crossed a trestle that spanned a waterfall, examined plant life and large snails. They learned about an exotic looking plant with bright red stems and white berries called “doll’s eyes.”
They heard how white pine trees are good barriers for water because they don’t shed leaves, deflect heavy rain and contain runoff.
When students returned to the basin, a popular spot for fishing, they started digging to collect soil samples.
“This area has been trampled on” with tree roots exposed because the soil has been washed away, Finnerty said. “When it rains hard, the water runs straight down to Lake Auburn. Today they’re learning about it, how to recognize erosion.”
The soil samples will be sent to the University of Maine in Orono. Students will get reports on what’s in the soil so they understand it’s not just dirt, but runoff like fertilizer or salt.
Throughout the year Finnerty’s four classes of agriculture students will come to the Lake Auburn basin monthly, learning, planning and working.
Students will be responsible for sections of the basin’s edge, figuring out the best way to repair buffer zones – planting plants or building structures – to reduce erosion.
Abby Tremaine, 17, said hands-on active learning “is a good way for kids to learn.”
Weekley, 16, said he was “scared about having to take chemistry.” After signing up, he enjoys the class and has an A. “I’m not really an A-student,” Weekley said. “But this class is awesome.”
He also was excited about protecting Lake Auburn. “Why not us? This is our community. We need to take care of it.”
Agriculture classes expand from 1 to 4
AUBURN — Last year, Kim Finnerty began teaching a hands-on chemistry class through agriculture to one class.
The class proved popular. Students liked learning about gardening and plant life as a way to learn science. Local experts visit the class to share real-world knowledge, including retired farmer Elmer Whiting, wild plant experts and Maine Cooperative Extension leaders.
This year, Finnerty is teaching four agriculture classes to 85 students. “It’s all I do,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting. I’m looking for another greenhouse.”