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FernLeaf Creek Week 2024

Creek Week is the brainchild of FernLeaf's Experiential Education Teacher, Ryan Lubbers, on our Creek Campus. Read on to learn more about this INCREDIBLE example of experiential and outdoor education in action.

In May of 2024, over 350 FernLeaf students, staff and parent volunteers embarked on a scientific mission to better understand the water quality of two creeks that run through the FernLeaf Creek Campus in Fletcher, NC.  Students collected and identified aquatic macroinvertebrates (animals with no backbones) in order to determine the water quality.  Aquatic macroinvertebrates are used to determine water quality because they are highly sensitive to changes in their environment, making them reliable indicators of ecological health. These organisms, such as insects, crustaceans, and mollusks, have varying levels of tolerance to pollutants and environmental stressors. Their presence, absence, or abundance provides valuable information about the quality of water. Additionally, macroinvertebrates are relatively easy to collect and identify, and they occupy various niches within the aquatic ecosystem, offering a comprehensive assessment of water quality across different habitats and pollution sources.

Wow! That is very academic.  Let’s bring it to the kids’ level…

We use aquatic macroinvertebrates, which are tiny water bugs, to see how clean or dirty the water is. Some bugs can only live in clean water, while others can live in dirty water. By finding out which bugs are in the water, we can tell if the water is healthy and good for animals and plants. It's a way to check if the water is healthy for life. It's like using a secret code to understand how healthy the creek is!”

The first creek we decided to investigate was the one that runs through the FernLeaf Creek Campus playground area.  We came to realize that this creek had no name!  We checked on google maps, with the FernLeaf staff and searched the internet.  This nameless creek needed a name!  We wanted it to have a name that was relevant and evoked a sense of place. 

After spending a few days mucking around with nets and exploring the banks we came up with a variety of names to be voted on.  Kids are very imaginative so there were a lot of hilarious names.  The “Name that Creek Campaign” was born and students voted for their top choice.  There were some great names like Turtle Creek, FernLeaf Creek and Kickball Creek, but a top choice emerged…CRAYFISH CREEK was the clear winner and the “no name creek”  finally got a name.

Crayfish Creek did indeed have hundreds and hundreds of crayfish which brought squeals of joy to the playground when student after student hauled in their catch.  In addition, we found the following macroinvertebrates:

  • Mayfly Larva

  • Freshwater Clam

  • Damselfly Larva

  • Dragonfly Larva

  • Scud

  • Water boatman 

  • Aquatic Worm

  • Midge Larva

  • Leech

  • Snail

  • Mosquito Larva

Plus some vertebrates:

  • Bullfrog Tadpoles

  • Eastern Newts

  • Mosquito Fish 

  • Pickerel (fish still unidentified to species level)

By using the Biotic Index Data Sheet (Fig, 4, below) we can categorize the macroinvertebrates into 3 categories.  Group 1: Sensitive, Group 2: Somewhat Sensitive and Group 3: Tolerant.  Group one critters (Mayfly) get 3 points.  Group 2 critters (clam, crayfish, damselfly, dragonfly scud and water boatman) get 2 points each.  Group 3 critters (worm, midge, leech, snail, mosquito) get 1 point each.

After scoring up all our critters, Crayfish Creek gets a score of: 20.  When we compare that to the Pollution Index we see that a creek with a score between 17-22 is considered Good water quality.  This was higher than any of us expected!  The macroinvertebrates present in Crayfish Creek indicate that there is some level of pollution; this is why we only found 1 representative of Group 1 pollution sensitive organisms.  However, there were enough of Group 2 and 3 organisms to indicate that habitat is healthy for “somewhat tolerant” and “tolerant” organisms.

The Biotic Index Data Sheet below is what we used to do this analysis.  If you are up for an adventure, print it out, grab a net and take it to your neighborhood creek to see for yourself what is happening under the surface!

Next on our science mission was to use these same techniques to investigate Cane Creek.  This is a much bigger creek with deeper pools, swift currents and some steep access points.  With the help of many parent volunteers, we guided students through the creek to a small island adjacent to a riffle pool.  We found the perfect outdoor classroom to begin our research!  As one might expect, the excitement level was extremely high with a mix of joy, fear of the unknown and the exhilaration of being knee deep in a fast flowing mountain stream.  It didn’t take them long before they figured out how to work the nets and collect a menagerie of aquatic life.

We found a diverse aquatic community of organisms living just below the surface.  Their group level and biotic score are as follows:

Group 1 (pollution sensitive organisms (3 points each)) found were:

Mayfly Larva

Stonefly Larva

Water Penny

Hellgramite (Dobsonfly Larva)

Caddisfly Larva

Score: 15

Group 2 (somewhat pollution sensitive (2 points each)) collected were:

Dragonfly Larva

Damselfly Larva

Cranefly Larva




Score:  12

Group 3 (pollution tolerant (1 point each))

Midge Larva


Snails (“Left-Handed”)

Aquatic Worm 

Score:  4

When we add up all the scores from above, we get a score of 31.  Comparing that to the Pollution Index we see that water with a score greater than 23 is considered excellent!  This puts our study section of Cane Creek well above the excellent benchmark in terms of suitability for aquatic life.  This was far higher than any of us had previously thought.  The biodiversity of the aquatic ecosystem is far more than we realized and the abundance of the Group 1 (pollution sensitive) organisms was far higher.  The FernLeaf students did an amazing job at balancing the fun of splashing around with their friends in the creek with the focus needed for the collection of organisms while being respectful of these precious and strange life forms.

Creek Week proved to be a wonderful experience for students, FernLeaf staff and the many volunteers that helped.  We had some true outdoor adventures without leaving our home campus.  We contributed to the scientific understanding of the ecological health of our two streams that we steward as the flow through our campus.  We trained the future scientists on techniques and protocols for field work.  We shared this experience as a school community and bonded in the cool, flowing waters of Cane Creek.  We felt the joy of discovery and we learned together about the natural wonders that surround us in our daily lives.  It was a great experience that sparked joy, curiosity and wonder.  After we reflected on our shared experience, we are already looking forward to next year’s Creek Week!

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