Bronxville High School students – who have been doing extensive research on the Bronx River as part of Justine McClellan’s science class – are gaining real fieldwork experience and assisting scientists with their research. They’re conducting a controlled study detailing the growth pattern of a newly emerging invasive plant, Corydalis incise, along the river.
The plant, which is native to Asia and was first discovered along the Bronx River in 2005, was recently documented in Westchester County. Although scientists do not yet fully understand how the plant will affect the ecosystem, McClellan said that Corydalis was assessed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a high-risk invasive species that can potentially spread rapidly and negatively impact existing ecosystems.
“To date, nobody has done a detailed study of the plant’s life cycle here in New York, and it is suspected that weather conditions can play a large role in the growth and reproduction of this plant,” said McClellan, who added that the plant has a biennial cycle – it grows in the winter and flowers in early spring.
As a result, a group of four students – Jay Burstein, Isabelle Cappello, Dayan Malley and Yuka Nakano – have set up a one-meter-squared control plot along the river to track the plant’s growth cycle. Each week, they walk to the banks of the river to record measurements about the temperature and precipitation, as well as the number of stems and individual plants in the plot. They record the height of each stem and note the color of the leaves, death of any stems and appearance of new stems. In the spring, they will also look for flowering and seeding patterns.
Suzanne Nolan, director of the Bronx River Parkway Reservation Conservancy, and Dr. Christina Andruk, a professor at Iona College, have served as advisers to the students who are involved in the project. They’ve trained the students in plant identification and are assisting them in designing their research protocol. Dr. Andruk has been tasked with tracking the location and spread of the plant along the river, and she’s also conducting a study on the most effective means of removal.
“With only a couple weeks of data so far, it is too soon to make any observations,” McClellan said. “The biggest takeaways for students have been their hands-on involvement in the scientific process itself. They’ve been learning how to correspond with experts in the field, read peer-reviewed journal articles, and most importantly, how to design an experiment and think through ways to collect data.”
Students said that their Bronx River Research Class, which prior to this year was offered as an independent study to a handful of students, has allowed them to gain a sense of independence, learn how to collaborate, and be patient and precise in their research.
“This project is important because as individuals we have the power to change things, and we should be responsible for preserving the health and safety of the Bronx River,” said Burstein, a junior. “That will benefit the community as well as the species that are native in that area. Overall, I am excited to make a positive difference in the community, which is why I signed up for this course in the first place.”
While this group of students is researching the invasive plant, other students from the class are focusing on different topics. One group is studying the bacteria enterococcus in the Bronx River and building on data collected over the past three years.
“They have noticed unusually high levels of bacteria at a storm drain pipe at Scout Field and are working to isolate the source of the bacteria and take civic action to remedy the situation,” McClellan said.
Another group is using conductivity probes to study the salinity of the Bronx River, and they will be tracking how salting on the roadways in the winter affects Bronx River salinity. Other students are planning to build an arduino probe that can be submersed in the river to collect data on pH, salinity, dissolved oxygen and temperature at high-frequency intervals.
“All of these research projects are engaging students in their local ecosystem and community,” McClellan said. “Aside from teaching them to how to conduct science research, they are also thinking about how this impacts their community and what they can do about it. All of these projects exemplify engaged citizenship and best science practices.”
The research on the Bronx River originally began as an independent study with just two students from Bronxville High School. Now in its fourth year, the district has incorporated the research into the K-12 curriculum through a variety of classes and disciplines.