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At a glance, the eighth-graders from Maryvale Middle School in Cheektowaga looked like they were just having fun, walking through the warm, shallow water of Buffalo Creek behind the Burchfield Nature and Art Center, poking at vegetation, lifting rocks and netting small fish and insects.

But their hands-on, foot-soaking experience with the gently flowing Buffalo River tributary was all scientific, part of a new program to document “A Day in the Life” of the Buffalo River.

“It’s hands-on science for them, because some of these kids probably don’t even know what the Buffalo River is, they don’t know what’s in their own backyard,” said Brittany Rowan, coordinator of the Day in the Life program and a state Department of Environmental Conservation employee who works for the department’s Reinstein Nature Preserve. “Instead of learning about water quality in a classroom lecture about some random river, this is relevant to them, and we’re using the local resource as a teaching tool.”

The goal of the program, organized by Friends of Reinstein Nature Preserve and the DEC, is to develop a database of measurements in and around the tributaries of the Buffalo River that will be the base for further study over the years and might just get some of the young data-collectors more interested in science and nature. On Friday, 63 students and 12 teachers and chaperones took samples at three sites.

“They really just sort of jumped in, literally,” said Brian Engler, a volunteer at Reinstein Nature Preserve, as boys and girls used small nets to capture creatures and plastic vials to collect water samples.

Jacob Kapper was watching the moving water intently but coming up empty with his small net, but Simon Krywcun held a plastic dish containing an inch-long insect with six legs and three long tails that he had collected. “It was underwater, under the rock,” he said, which is where the juvenile insects cling so they don’t get washed downstream and eaten by a fish.

Using a laminated sheet of photos of common insects, Krywcun worked with Meaghan Boice-Green, director of the Reinstein Woods Environmental Education Center, to identify the creature as a damselfly nymph.

“What you find in this water can tell you a little about how healthy the water is, because there are some animals that need really clean water to survive, and there are some animals that can live in very polluted water,” said Boice-Green. “So by looking at different parts of the river and what invertebrates are living there, you can tell something about the health of that portion of the river.”

Damselflies, like the active creature in Krywcun’s dish, “can tolerate a little bit of pollution, but they prefer relatively clean water.” Better yet, the group had scooped up a nymph with extravagant feathery appendages, which Boice-Green identified as a mayfly. “The mayflies need very clean water,” she said.

Engler said the group also located some golden shiners, native member of the minnow family, in the creek that flows beneath the busy Union Road bridge just south of Clinton Street. “We didn’t know what they were at first,” he said, but the book “Pond Life” helped them identify the fish.

Placed in dishpan-sized tanks, where the students examined them closely with magnifying glasses, the small fish took the opportunity to devour some of the other specimens sharing the tank. “The kids were looking at that, saying, “ ‘Wow, this is cool!’ ” said Engler.

Among the students’ other discoveries were snails and a small leech, he said. “A lot of the stuff you can’t see easily, but when you start looking closely, you see all the tiny pinhead things moving around.”

Boice-Green said students also recorded data on the day’s weather, water PH, temperature and oxygen levels, and documented the amount and type of vegetation and human uses of the site.

The 33 students from Maryvale, the largest of three groups collecting data Friday, will have their findings posted on a website that will be developed by a community planning class at SUNY Buffalo State. Also recording data for the project Friday were a group from Depew High School, who worked in Cayuga Creek at Stiglmeier Park, and students from the St. Peter’s Lutheran Homeschool Organization in Lockport, who recorded their data at Cazenovia Creek in Cazenovia Park. Some staffers also took samples for comparison purposes at Red Jacket River Front Park in Buffalo.

On Oct. 16, students from Southside Elementary School in Buffalo will collect data at the Seneca Bluffs and Bailey Peninsula off Elk Street.

“Kids can read in a classroom about far-away places, or do science in the classroom that’s sort of a simulation, but to actually get out to a natural resource in their community helps bring home to them the connection that we all have to our water resources,” said Boice-Green.

email: aneville@buffnews.com