Students as scientists – Waiheke Island wetland reserve restored

A formerly desolate area of land on school grounds has given Waiheke High School students the opportunity to work like scientists as part of their curriculum. As a result, water quality has improved, marine life is recovering and birds are returning to the area.

Waiheke High School sits beside Te Huruhi Bay, on Waiheke Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. Until recent years the school was unaware it owned a patch of land beside the sports grounds – a wetland reserve with a stream running through it into the sea. 

The marine environment around Waiheke Island provides contextualised science opportunities for students.

The marine environment around Waiheke Island provides contextualised science opportunities for students.

The land was overrun by weeds, including a jungle of pampas grass, and the stream water quality was poor. Tyres and other material had been dumped there and marine life in the bay had suffered as a result.

Runoff into the stream from nearby building projects in the past, and the creation of the school’s sports ground in 1984, had also fouled the bay. 

Local resident Tony King-Turner is working with the school on the restoration project.

Local resident Tony King-Turner is working with the school on the restoration project.

A community group, spearheaded by local resident Tony King-Turner, gained funding support to restore the wetland as an action project, clearing, replanting and cleaning up the stream.

In doing so it developed its local curriculum across chemistry, biology, and maths, and collaborated with many partners in the community, the local scientific community, Auckland Council and the Waiheke Local Board, who assisted with developing the scientific method.

Biology student Nahanni Bliss, originally from Canada, says, “It’s unusual for a school to have a wetland, an unprecedented resource for us to use, within walking distance of classrooms. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Authentic scientific research

Head of science Katherine Cole says the students are taking part in authentic scientific research, working together and communicating their findings to monitoring agencies. 

Year 13 student Aneirin tests for water clarity. The students use their school stream for their work in science and biology.

Year 13 student Aneirin tests for water clarity. The students use their school stream for their work in science and biology.

“The aim is to make science meaningful and relevant to students’ lives. The curriculum links to diverse science strands, giving the students the chance to work like scientists, including deciding on a methodology, collecting the data and then analysing it.”

The junior students’ units of work link to local environmental contexts, including plant and animal biodiversity, stream health, marine science, pest/predator monitoring, and eradication. They also contact suppliers and organise resources or assistance where needed.

Senior students use the project in a variety of ways, including monitoring of stream water quality, shellfish numbers and ocean acidification. 

Level 2 biology students focus on ecology and collect and upload data to an Auckland Council database. Longitudinal data is completed for year-on-year comparison to evaluate effectiveness of their work. Water testing results are uploaded to the Wai Care website. 

Results that students gather and analyse contribute towards their NCEA internal assessments for Level 3 biology (AS91601), Level 2 biology (AS91153) and Level 1 science with numeracy (AS90951). 

Improved water quality

Data gathering by the students is used for environmental monitoring by local authorities.

Data gathering by the students is used for environmental monitoring by local authorities.

Over time, the project has produced higher quality stream water and improved water quality of the bay it feeds into. Now, after years of decline due to pollution, shellfish numbers and other elements of the marine ecosystem are slowly recovering. There is a larger diversity of species in the bay, more seagrass growth, and an increased number of shellfish.

Regular testing at three sites on the stream is carried out by the students, to measure the amount of dissolved oxygen, as well as temperature, turbidity, and clarity. 

Over the past 15 years, 1,200 trees have been planted in the wetland to help restore the ecosystem and reduce runoff, and birdlife is returning to the area because of the trees. Fruit trees have been planted in the wetland and will be bearing fruit soon. Foundation North has helped provide funding to buy trees and Year 7 students have helped with planting each year.

An action plan for beach improvement has been drawn up as part of a Waiheke Local Board-funded marine issues project, with Year 8 students doing beach clean-ups and raising funds for their work. 

Another group of students has put in a litter trap on the drains from the road to stop plastic going down the stream into the ocean. After researching the options, they chose a product from supplier Stormwater 360. They also examined single-use plastics and held a workshop which came up with alternatives to plastic for supermarket shopping and other activities. 

Learning opportunities for all students

The project has also created learning opportunities for students in the Year 11 science and numeracy course. These students monitor macro-invertebrate numbers in the stream, in a cross-curricular context, using maths and science.

One of the school’s community partners is Waiheke Trust, which works to restore wetlands on the island, and educates on community sustainability and resilience. The students also hold a community collaboration day to share information about what they’re doing. 

Assistant Head of Science Julie Campbell says, “We’ve had numerous community partners, and lots of help from the scientific community. We are fortunate to have a high number of scientists living on Waiheke, and the island is a very environmentally aware community. 

“The students are having a real impact on biodiversity through the action plan related to their studies.”

What students think

Student Bonnie examines water taken from the stream that runs through the school’s land.

Student Bonnie examines water taken from the stream that runs through the school’s land.

“The water testing of our wetland stream allows us to track and measure the health of the stream and plays an important role in our community.” Bonnie, Year 13.

“I hope that other schools around the world see what we are doing and follow in our footsteps so we can all make a difference.” Lola, Year 8.

“I feel really privileged because I realise other people around the world don’t have the same opportunities that we have. I feel like sometimes with big things like this you can feel helpless, but it’s good to do something so you can feel like you are helping.” Delilah, Year 8.

“It’s been fun knowing we can make a difference. We are so lucky to have our own wetlands and it’s cool using them for our projects.” Olive, Year 8.

Key project and curriculum objectives

  • Form community partnerships using local natural environment and resources.
  •  Contextualise the learning for students, with the intention of helping them to experience, understand and engage in local issues. 
  •  Establish monitoring programmes that contribute to data gathering and improved scientific outcomes.
  •  Encourage student-led action to protect and enhance the local Waiheke Island environment.

Using science in daily life

The science learning area in The New Zealand Curriculum Te Whāriki promotes the idea of developing citizenship capabilities. Students (citizens) need to be ready, willing, and able to use their science knowledge in their schooling and their everyday lives. 

This is important so that they develop the broad science capabilities they’ll need to participate as critical, informed and responsible citizens in a society in which science plays a significant role.  

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Source: Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero

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