Taking a close look at marine worlds

Students dissect fish, examine microscopic particles to learn what is present in ocean waters.A group of fifth graders at Top of the World Elementary School will be the first to tell you that down is the direction pollution travels.

As part of their education in science, the students of Susan Dick's homeroom class took a trip to the Ocean Institute in Dana Point to conduct experiments on the environment.

In search of pollutants, the students went on a boat a mile off the coast to take samples of water and mud.

At first observation, everything appeared normal.

"In the mud we found bloodworms and pink brittle star," student Karina Reiss said.

"If there's a lot of them it's good because it means they're healthy."

Under a microscope, a closer look uncovered tiny toxic plankton.

"Toxic plankton is bad because little fish eat it, then big fish eat the little fish -- and then we eat the big fish," said student Leandra Jackson.

Taking their experiments a step further, the students dissected a mackerel for a glimpse of what goes on inside.

"We found a small fish in its belly," said student Amanda Kimball.

"I felt kind of bad for the fish, but it was already dead anyways," student Owen Weber said.

"The fish has more parts than you think," said Kimball.

To be thorough in their observations, the students then tested the water for harmful nitrates and phosphates.

"We took samples, then compared them to pristine water," said Weber. "Our local water is dirty; we are impacting our local marine environment."

In learning just how pollution gets into the ocean, the students also observed a watershed model that represented the journey of chemicals and trash take from higher ground to the ocean. A watershed is the region draining into a body of water.

"When it rains, [the pollution] gets into the drains and goes out into the ocean," Reiss said.

Dog waste and oil from leaks are two more concerns for the environment, he added.

In observing the travels of trash, the class was then faced with the question of how Top of the World School may affect the watershed at Aliso Creek.

To answer that question, Dick's class will conduct their own experiment.

One group of students will collect samples around the school, and another will collect samples near a storm drain, said the students.

If the two sets of samples match, it will give the students an indication that trash originating on their playground is finding its way to the ocean.

Candy wrappers, wood chips and balls found around Top of the World School are some of the things Weber thinks the class may find near the storm drain.

When asked whether or not the environment is in good shape, the students were cautiously optimistic.

"We can do better," Weber said.

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