May 24, 2013 – Tri-Town Transcript

By Kate Evans/

Boxford – Two Spofford Pond Elementary School teachers are leading their third grade classes in an assignment that should ultimately address Spofford Pond’s questionable health while giving students a hands-on learning experience.

In this Pond Project, eight and nine-year-olds are working with teachers Lisa Holt and Gayle MacElhiney, as well as MacElhiney’s husband Larry MacElhiney, the Lakes, Ponds and Streams Committee and town conservation agents to get to the bottom of the pond – and problem.

Since the fall students have continuously monitored the pond’s water level, as well as taken inventory of invasive plant species and animal life in the area. While developing their knowledge, skills and values, students are providing the town conservation agents with thorough details of the pond’s health over time.

Holt and MacElhiney came up with the project idea during a graduate course they took last summer through the National Park Service [ed. and Essex Heritage].

“Our school and the street it is on are both named for Spofford Pond, yet students take little notice and have little knowledge of the pond and its history and significance,” explained Holt and MacElhiney.

There are concerns in Boxford over the pond’s health. When people litter and overuse fertilizer and pesticides, they are aiding the spread of invasive plant and animal species, explained the teachers who stressed the these actions disturb the pond’s watershed.

“Boxford’s conservation agents and the Lakes, Ponds and Streams Committee have suggested that it would be helpful to their mission to have students monitor the water level and inventory invasive plant species and evidence of animal life at Spofford Pond,” said the teachers. “The Lakes, Ponds and Streams Committee has stewardship of water resources in Boxford, and the information collected by students will serve as baseline data for Spofford Pond School and help in the effort to monitor its health.”

Getting started

Holt and MacElhiney got in touch with Assistant Conservation Administrator Chuck Tirone and Director of Conservation Ross Povenmire in September to set up this project. With instruction from the conservation department, students (with help from Larry MacElhiney) made a water level gauge install out of PVC pipe with drilled holes to allow water flow.

Povenmire waded out into the pond to “sink” the gauge while students cheered him on. Then he and Tirone taught students about the flora (plants) and fauna (animals) around the pond. They also informed kids that every living thing in the pond’s watershed plays a role in the its overall health.

“[The project] has grown as the kids have taken a hands-on role across the street at Spofford Pond,” said Tirone.

An outdoor experience

 The third graders have worked with their teachers to record weather and water levels and to monitor flora and fauna located around the pond. The teachers try to bring students to the pond once every two weeks, except over the winter when temperatures were too cold. 

“We wanted to find ways that our students could do something collaboratively with different groups in town,” said MacElhiney. “And they [the conservation team] indicated that they could benefit from some data collection.”

Students complete observation sheets, created by Larry MacElhiney, based on what they see outside.

“This is where the children live, they’re naturally curious,” said Holt. “For many of them, this was an outdoor experience. This might be the only time during the week they are outside looking at the plants and the animals in their area.”

Curriculum connection

Children record weather conditions such as temperature, wind, cloud cover and sky color on observation sheets. Although Holt and MacElhiney teach about weather instruments in school, they did not bring any outside, so in one lesson Larry taught the students how to naturally gauge wind from tree and branch movement.

Students also learn about the town of Boxford, plants and animals and the history of Spofford Pond. MacElhiney said it generated student interest in history when Povenmire told students that the pond was a glacial resource, created during the ice age.

MacElhiney hopes now that the weather is warming up that students can further study history at the Document Center in west Boxford.

Holt also said students will soon study an invasive plant at the pond, which is of concern to the pond’s health.

To get a bit closer to determining the pond’s health status, Holt and MacElhiney booked a Department of Conservation Resources sponsored weed-watcher class for May 29 to teach students about non-native species and how they get there. Students will identify plants brought from the DCR Lakes and Ponds Program, as well as plants from the pond and their homes in town.

“The conservation office looks forward to talking to students and motivating them for activities like this one at Spofford Pond and in other areas in town where the Conservation Commission is involved,” said Tirone.

“The purpose and the goals are to promote student inquiry and their knowledge and their engagement and concern about their local environment, increasing their civic and environmental awareness,” said Holt. “The idea is that when they’re involved with their local community, they will foster their citizenship and build those bonds with their own town.”

Earth Day clean up

In pursuit of their goal to determine the pond’s health, students spent Saturday, April 27 collecting trash that littered the Spofford Pond area on Ipswich and Spofford roads. They removed the trash and were rewarded with Benson’s ice cream, which was all part of Boxford’s Earth Day celebration.

Read more about Essex Heritage Education Programs.

Read the story on the Tri-Town Transcript website.