Cherry Creek and South Platte River create living laboratory
When Senior Instructor Cheri Jones, PhD, wants to teach her General Biology 2 students about aquatic insects and water quality, she turns off her digital projector, tells everyone to grab their jackets and marches her class down the hall and out the door.
“There are no PowerPoints on the water,” Jones said.
That water is Cherry Creek, just a couple minutes’ walk from the Science Building where Jones’ class in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences normally meets. While outsiders might think of CU Denver as a concrete campus with few natural features, students studying biology, hydrology, geography and ecology know they can use nearby Cherry Creek as a living laboratory.
CU students also enjoy the confluence of the creek and the South Platte River as a place to relax and get exercise, exploring with kayaks.
“[Cherry Creek] is a really good resource,” said Jones. “We are an urban campus, but there’s lots of potential to study biology, and you don’t have to go very far.”
“It’s better for us who learn by doing.”
As soon as Jones’ class arrives at the creek, three teams of students get to work. Matt Maxwell, a biology major and a member of “Team One,” dons waders and navigates carefully through the swiftly moving current to gather water samples. He enjoys the opportunity to get out of the classroom and do field work.
“It’s real-world experience,” Maxwell said.
“Team Two” member Halimah Hamidu sees Cherry Creek every day, walking to and from parking her car.“Today I’m looking at it with new eyes,” she said. “Today, I’m learning about it.” On the banks of the creek, she’s running chemistry experiments showing that the pH level of the water varies depending on where the water sample comes from.
Members of “Team Three” are counting and identifying macroinvertebrates in the water samples—mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies and black fly larvae.“People are surprised by the biodiversity of what they find,” said Jones of this tributary of the South Platte. “Macroinvertebrates—organisms without a backbone and large enough to be seen with the naked eye—can thrive in urban waters. Waters don’t have to be pristine to support insect life.”
All the students appear to love the hands-on experiments they can do right outside the science building door.“What’s cool is that the location brings something to the experiment you can’t get out of a book,” said junior Kristie Koegler. “It’s better for us who learn by doing.”
It’s also a pleasure for the instructor. “It’s fun to teach this lab,” said Jones. “You get to see students explore, and you escape from the classroom building for a couple hours.”
“Water is a real resource for teaching.”
“Water is a real resource for teaching. It’s all discovery-based,” said Hartley. “I give them a topic and teach them a method, but they always come up with their own experiment.”
Often, those experiments involve the creation of leaf packs, which students place in different locations of the water to see what kinds of organisms colonize in the packs. After a few weeks, students in waders revisit those “leaf condos” to see what has moved in.
“The students are stunned to see what is living in the water in the middle of city life,” said Hartley. “Most of them have walked along the river but never been in it. They see it as scenery; they don’t see it as a center for biological life.”
For Hartley, the class is also a learning experience. “I always learn something new, because you can’t ask a question we already know the answer to.”
“…less than a five-minute walk from the classroom.”
When Chin taught the same course at Texas A & M University, the field work required what she calls “a huge commotion—renting vehicles, traveling 40 minutes to the field site—all of which cut into class time.”
At CU Denver, doing the same field work is a simple matter of walking across the street to the creek.“This is phenomenal, unbelievable that you can go across the street and do this,” Chin said. “It’s so unexpected to have a beautiful setting and creek in the middle of the city.”
On a cool spring day, the students unpacked equipment and are learning to use various types of current meters to measure the velocity of the water in Cherry Creek. Undergraduate Tessa Bopp marveled at how much they can learn in an urban environment.“The natural world is all around us, even in such an urban area,” Bopp said. “I’m surprised at how effectively we are able to try different techniques we’ve been learning, less than a five-minute walk from the classroom.”
Chin is teaching students core skills that would be used by hydrologic technicians in entry level positions, potentially in the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the US Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and most environmental fields.“If we’re doing the measurements over lunchtime, lots of people walking by stop and talk to us, because they work in the water field,” Chin said.
Someday, Chin’s students might walk by Cherry Creek and see the next generation of hydrologists learning from the creek that runs through CU Denver.