Inaugural Lake Champlain youth summit connects students from New York, Vermont
By Zachary Matson
With four backpacks marking the corners of a playing field, a class of eighth grade students playacting as macro-invertebrate larvae and nymphs raced back and forth. If tagged by students playing the role of “environmental stressor,” they turned into maggots and were forced to stand still.
At the center of the game was a key lesson in environmental science: as stressors like pollutants and invasive species harm the most sensitive species, biodiversity wanes.
“It’s important we have a lot of biodiversity,” said Nash Carlisto, a junior at Saranac Lake High School.
“Environmental stressors impact that,” added Lucy Thill, a classmate.
The school’s AP environmental science class ferried to Vermont across Lake Champlain on Wednesday to join students from Keene Central School and a half dozen Vermont schools on the Burlington waterfront to learn and teach about the lake’s ecosystem and the economy and culture it supports. The Saranac Lake class shared a lesson with younger students on the importance of macro-invertebrates, the early-stage insects, snails and worms that are strong indicators of water quality.
After the game of tag, students brainstormed potential stressors on Lake Champlain: zebra mussels, lamprey, algae, they said. “The sewer water that gets dumped into the lake,” one student added.
Around 185 students from eight schools gathered for the first-ever Lake Champlain Basin Youth Clean Water Summit. A coalition of Lake Champlain organizations for years have arranged professional development for teachers, encouraging educators to incorporate the Lake Champlain watershed into their classroom.
In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, program organizers set out to convene students to learn directly from the lake. High school students led sessions for elementary and middle school students, developing lessons and practicing leadership skills. Science lessons were mixed with recreational activities. As one group collected water samples from floating docks, another group floated past on a sailboat.
Ashley Eaton, education coordinator for the Lake Champlain Sea Grant at the University of Vermont, helped organize the water summit. She said one of the students told her it was the first time they had been on the lake.
“That’s a core memory they will have with them forever,” Eaton said. “If you learn about the place you are from, you are more likely to take care of it.”
Across the waterfront park, Keene Central fifth and sixth graders fished from a pier.
One of them, Blake McCoy, noted that the Ausable River, Keene’s home stream, ends up in Lake Champlain.
“If someone catches something down here, you could catch it there,” Blake said.
Lake advocates and scientists demonstrated water monitoring protocols and explained the litany of different risks the health of the water faced. Julie Silverman, the Lake Champlain Lakekeeper, collected water samples from a dock and highlighted a jar of foam and plastic pulled from the lake. Not all contaminants are obvious, though.
“Sometimes the pollution in the lake you can’t even see with your eye,” Silverman said.
Silverman said students are an important audience to reach in lake protection work.
“It’s their work and their passion that is going to drive solutions for the future,” Silverman said.
The Saranac Lake students are well aware of the changing environment that will shape their futures. They see it changing outside their front doors.
“It’s all intertwined in everything we do in our daily lives,” said senior Sam Ash, who noted the region’s loss of snow cover was already impacting early season workouts for Nordic skiing. Skiers are running instead of skiing, Ash said. The scientific concepts are easier to grasp, students said, when they relate to something they already know.
“Science is often applicable to far away places,” Carlisto said. “These are things happening in our lake and our home, stuff we need to care about.”
“You can go outside and see it,” Thill added. “There’s an urgency to it. We have to protect our snow.”
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