One person gestures to another while both are standing in a stream.

GVSU stream research project connects high school students to larger Shedd Aquarium study

A Grand Valley researcher is teaming up with a teacher and students from a Muskegon County high school to conduct tests monitoring the health of a beloved creek that flows nearby.

The most recent testing is for the presence and behavior of suckers in Crockery Creek, which is a tributary for the Grand River as it nears the end of its journey to Lake Michigan. That sucker monitoring is also part of a larger study with ties to John Ball Zoo and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, said Amanda Buday, associate professor of sociology.

Buday, a rural sociologist, got involved with studying Crockery Creek after conducting a community survey in 2022 for the Ottawa Conservation District regarding the Crockery Creek watershed.

"One of the things that stood out as we talked to landowners is that a lot of people expressed memories of fishing in the creek, and it was a really valued local trout stream," Buday said. "But there was a sense that the Grand River had gotten a lot of focus as far as water-quality efforts but that Crockery Creek had not been up until the Ottawa Conservation District grant.

Five people standing along a creek bank smile while looking into the creek.
Pictured from left, Ravenna FFA teacher Melanie Block, Amanda Buday, associate professor of sociology, community volunteers Devlyn and Ken Borgman and Grand Valley student Steven King stand along the Rio Grande Branch of Crockery Creek as they participate in a sucker migration study in collaboration with John Ball Zoo and Shedd Aquarium.

Buday said further research showed monitoring of Crockery Creek had been relatively inconsistent. As she investigated ways to help fill that gap, Buday was connected with Melanie Block, a teacher at Ravenna High School who leads that school's FFA Rural Technology class. 

Block's students, primarily from that group, have been taking part in stream monitoring in conjunction with Buday. Other testing has included monitoring for such things as E. coli.

"This helps draw a connection for why they should care about the water quality in the community and how they affect it," Block said.

The project's goal is to collect community-owned stream science data that over a long period of time will help keep a pulse on what is happening with this creek that has been significant to generations of residents, especially recreationally.

The Ravenna High School contingent and Buday recently started the sucker monitoring by using equipment in a branch of Crockery Creek which runs through Patterson Park. The students had started their morning meeting with experts at John Ball Zoo on training and monitoring protocol.

A person uses a pencil to write on a piece of paper in a folder while conducting research at a stream.
Ravenna High School student Larkin Scharenbroch logs data along a branch of Crockery Creek.
Two people standing in a stream place a ruler in the bottom of the stream.
Ravenna High School students Wesley VerMeer, left, and Constantin Schnabel, right, work on adding equipment to the water.

This study of suckers is one of the first projects on the east side of Lake Michigan for the Shedd Aquarium experts, who are also researching sucker migration in Illinois and Wisconsin, Buday said.

According to those experts, suckers are the most abundant migratory fishes in the Great Lakes. They serve as a food source for many species while fertilizing creeks with their nutrients during spawning migrations. Monitoring is important because the timing of their migration is based on environmental cues, which may be activated earlier than usual in the spring due to climate shifts, the experts said.

Buday said a hallmark of this entire stream-monitoring project is the number of GVSU experts who have helped with field training, water research techniques, statistics and more. She said they are constantly working to innovate ways to bring the research to the public and to upgrade equipment and techniques.

People place a sign on plywood. The sign has a headline of "Hey Suckers!" and includes some additional wording, a QR code, and logos for Ravenna High School, Grand Valley State University, John Ball Zoo and Shedd Aquarium.
Melanie Block, the teacher for the Rural Technology class at Ravenna High School, and her students hang up a sign in Patterson Park to explain the sucker migration study to the community.

The support from the local community, including local conservation organizations, has also been crucial, from financial help to providing audiences for students to present their research, Buday said.

"The power of working through those trusted local organizations is really why we are doing this," Buday said. "It's why we're working with the FFA program specifically, to connect the community to science, and to do it through organizations that they trust and value."

Experiences such as the stream monitoring to more deeply understand natural resources has led to numerous students showing an interest in going into those types of fields as a career, Block said. But she noted the knowledge her students are acquiring will have a lifelong impact no matter the professional path they take.

"We're trying to raise informed consumers whether they work in the industry or not," Block said.


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