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DL science students make 'very rare' discovery on field trip

Moriya Rufer (in the water, center), an aquatic ecologist and director of environmental services for RMB Labs in Detroit Lakes, instructs the DLHS freshman science class on how to use nets to catch aquatic invertebrates for their research. Marie Johnson / Tribune1 / 8
Students Falyn Deboer, front, and Joe Boomgarden take a quick break from water testing for a fun wade through Sucker Creek, near the bog walk. Behind them are community volunteers Brent Allcott, left, and Andy Ulven. Marie Johnson / Tribune2 / 8
Sean Oakes scans the water while netting aquatic insects for research at Sucker Creek on Wednesday. Marie Johnson / Tribune3 / 8
A group of freshman science students wades down Sucker Creek during a water quality testing field trip on Wednesday. Marie Johnson / Tribune4 / 8
Mason Hamar looks slightly grossed out as he identifies aquatic invertebrates with other kids from the freshman science class on Wednesday. Visible just over his right shoulder is Sean Oakes. Marie Johnson / Tribune5 / 8
After catching aquatic insects in nets, the students moved them to pans for easier counting and identification. The kinds and numbers of insects found in Sucker Creek are indicators of the water's quality, which the research determined to be "excellent" or "very good" in all instances. Marie Johnson / Tribune6 / 8
Hannah Hagen takes a quick look back before joining her group on a stroll down Sucker Creek after testing the water for invertebrates. To her right is LeeCorissa Shefelbine. Marie Johnson / Tribune7 / 8
Elie Staley, left, and Jessica Bolar show the tray of insects they collected in Sucker Creek as part of their water quality research on Wednesday. Marie Johnson / Tribune8 / 8

If environmental scientists spoke in baseball terms, they might say Detroit Lakes High School's freshman science classes have hit a home run in the major leagues.

The students started a new water quality testing project at Sucker Creek this year, and their research has already yielded some far-reaching results.

During two separate class field trips to the creek—one last September and another just this past Wednesday—students discovered a "very rare aquatic insect"—an insect so rare that Moriya Rufer, an aquatic ecologist and director of environmental services for RMB Environmental Laboratories in Detroit Lakes, said the discovery is generating enthusiasm within environmental circles across the state and beyond.

The insect is a caddisfly, of the family Goeridae and genus Goera. It only lives in the most pristine streams of northern Minnesota and thus is hardly ever seen. The caddisfly was collected by students on the field trip, and then identified to genus under the microscope by RMB Labs staff. It's been found in less than 1 percent of the 6,000 streams tested for aquatic insects in Minnesota.

"It is important to water quality professionals because it is a clean water indicator," said Rufer of the find. "It shows that the water quality in Sucker Creek is excellent... It is also just exciting for science when a very rare species is found."

According to the Detroit Lakes students' research data, which Rufer described as "scientifically sound," Sucker Creek's water quality consistently ranked "very good" to "excellent," excellent being the top ranking possible and very good being next-best.

Rufer was one of more than a dozen volunteers that pitched in on the class's field trip days; local experts in water quality and environmental conservation worked alongside the kids to guide them in their research.

Volunteer Dave Friedl, for example, is a former Area Fisheries Manager for the DNR and was also the northwest region's Clean Water Specialist. Now retired, he was on site for this past week's Sucker Creek field trip.

"This is the best classroom in the world," he said with a smile as he watched the kids wading in the creek in the sunshine, collecting and studying insects. "This is a wonderful program."

The field trips are designed to connect kids with their natural environment in a tangible and meaningful way, according to instructor Steve Fode. Fode has taught ninth grade science at DLHS for more than 25 years, and it was the desire to foster this important connection that led him to swap his previous lab-based water quality unit for this more hands-on, community-based project involving Sucker Creek.

Last fall's class was the first to take the field trip to the creek; this spring's class was the second.

Wearing hip-high waders, students tromped through the stream, its muddy banks and reedy fields to take water and invertebrate samples at two different sites. One testing site was located near the Sucker Creek bog walk, where students took water samples to chemically test for quality, and the other was further downstream, where kids caught, counted and identified invertebrates as an ecological measure of water quality.

The invertebrate research is especially valuable and unique, Friedl noted, as "an indirect but outstanding indicator of water quality" that also shows how water quality affects other parts of an ecosystem, i.e. the invertebrate populations.

"This is a pretty unique stream, so to be able to do your testing here is pretty great," Rufer told the students on Wednesday.

In addition to the field trips, the two-week water quality units entailed classroom work and presentations by special guests from the community. City council members, community developers and others visited Fode's classroom, sharing information about a 23-lot housing development that was once proposed for the site that is now Sucker Creek.

The unit culminates with a big decision for the kids—should they create a natural woods park at the site, or build a new housing development? This past fall, the students overwhelming voted to leave Sucker Creek as a natural woods park (at 87 percent). The spring students were due to make their vote on May 23.

Sally Hausken, who was the driving force behind the creation of Sucker Creek nature preserve and also this water quality testing project, noted that the project is a partnership between the high school and the city of Detroit Lakes, enabled by funding from an anonymous donation to the city's Sucker Creek Education Account.

By all accounts, the project has been a big success.

"I thought it was so cool," said student Mercedes Jesness, and other students agreed.

"I thought this was one of the more fun days we have had this year," Carson Woldpy said. "We had a good experience at Sucker Creek, and we learned a lot there."

"It was fun to go out into the water and learn about the insects and water quality," said Annika Gulseth.

"People do not always understand the importance of science in their daily lives," Alecia Ahers said. "Going to Sucker Creek gets kids into the moment to experience what the world is outside of our phones.

"It was way past my expectations, it was unbelievable," summed up Fode. "So many kids have never had waders on, have never collected insects, have never been to Sucker Creek. It's not just going back to the lab now (to test water). Now, they see the connection—the plants, the animals, the insects, the housing development... it's just so much real. That's what was missing before."

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 4-year-old son and toddler daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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