Embracing eDNA technology to restore local stream

Issue: Volume 102, Number 4

Posted: 30 March 2023
Reference #: 1HA_9D

Aorere College is merging STEM education and sustainability to get ākonga out of the classroom and learn how they make a positive difference in their local community.

 Year 9 students at Aorere College collecting and analysing water samples of their local awa.

Year 9 students at Aorere College collecting and analysing water samples of their local awa.

Since 2021, Aorere College teachers Aidan Kiely and Jenny Scott have run a STEM project where Year 9 students can experience a real-life application of science while learning about sustainability and its link to climate change in their own backyard. 

Referred to as Jenny’s brainchild, the project aims to restore the health of a polluted portion of the local Waokauri Stream, located 10 minutes from the school. The hope is for native taonga species to return to and flourish in the area.

The idea of monitoring the restoration using eDNA came to Aidan as he was a participant teacher on the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s Science Teaching Leadership Program. This provided the opportunity to work with Auckland Council and be exposed to different environmental projects across Tāmaki Makaurau.

“We need to live in a way that is in harmony with our environment. We talk about how this stream was once someone’s freshwater source and the place they got their food supply. We can paint this picture of the environment being this wonderful sustaining force,” says Aidan. 

He says discussions like this invite ākonga to investigate environmental issues and help them realise that their actions have an impact. 

Year 9 students to date have removed a dam, cleaned up a large amount of rubbish and weeds, planted native trees and monitored species present in the stream. 

This project was made possible through support from Curious Minds South Auckland Participatory Science Platform, an initiative managed by Te Hononga Akoranga COMET, and funding by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. 

Incorporating eDNA

“The ‘e’ in eDNA stands for environmental,” says Aidan, a molecular biologist by trade who saw the opportunity to incorporate a scientific technique called eDNA testing in the restoration effort.

Water samples are collected by the students and sent off to eDNA partners Wilderlab for analysis.

Water samples are collected by the students and sent off to eDNA partners Wilderlab for analysis.

“You run the stream water through a filter which traps pieces of DNA; this DNA then gets extracted and sequenced. The DNA provides a good barcode for what species live in the stream.” 

With this technique, Aidan and his students can determine how abundant a species is in the ecosystem. 

Students are hands-on throughout the process and learn scientific methods including sample collection and analysis. 

Water samples are collected by the students and sent off to eDNA partners Wilderlab for analysis.

The class discovered a lot of unexpected species present in the stream.

“We found some taonga species – kōkopu and long-finned eels – which you wouldn’t expect to see in a stream that looks like ours,” says student Haereata-Rose. 

The class also found traces of ducks, possums, sheep, and invasive mosquito fish in the stream.

Critical thinking

Students are encouraged to think critically using the data they have available. 

“We describe it to the students as being a crime scene forensic investigator,” says Aidan.

The results identified more possums in the area than originally anticipated and, surprisingly, a strong sheep signal. This shows someone had possibly been dumping sheep remains  somewhere up-stream. 

“There aren’t any sheep farms or sheep anywhere so that was confusing initially,” says Aidan.

Their findings are passed on to Auckland Council to help identify streams for wider conservation efforts. 

Aidan plans to collate the eDNA test data year-on-year to build a clear understanding of the impact their project is having on the stream. 

“We’re going to see if our efforts in pulling fungus infected trees, removing rubbish and planting native trees will change the species that live in the stream,” he says. 

Aidan says restoration efforts to date have dramatically improved the section of the stream and they hope to see an increase in taonga species over time.

Next steps for Aidan and Jenny are to extend the restoration efforts further up-stream with the help of a local kindergarten.

“We’re early in the journey but it shows it’s something the school can do as an ongoing thing.”

Aorere College Year 9 students experience a real-life application of science while learning about sustainability.

Aorere College Year 9 students experience a real-life application of science while learning about sustainability.

Starting STEM early

With research recognising that STEM degree graduates are more likely to end up in higher paying industries in New Zealand, Aorere College is proactive in introducing students to different types of STEM learning experiences from Year 9.

Aidan says many students respond positively to being outside the classroom and exposed to science through real-life scenarios like this stream project. 

“The two students who you don’t see reading out of a science textbook are the first ones in the stream if you need samples collected. They’re interested in what the findings will be and it pulls them in,” he says. 

Throughout the project, students were exposed to people in careers that they never knew existed. 

The class dealt with staff from the Auckland Council’s Sustainable Schools and Park Ranger teams and other contractors with science backgrounds. 

A volunteer helper on the project is an environmental engineer with whakapapa to a local hapū.

“Exposure and seeing people in these roles brushes off,”
says Aidan.

Aorere College has several STEM-related vocational pathways to encourage students to pursue technical careers. 

Their Health Science academy supports students interested in medicine, physiotherapy and nursing. The school also provides Digital Technology classes to provide more pathways into IT.

“The goal is to increase university entrance numbers and to help students get more future-proofed and into successful careers,” says Aidan. ”However, even if they don’t pursue a STEM pathway, we want them to realise they can make a difference.”

Read more about the Curious Minds South Auckland Participatory Science Platform(external link)

Restoration efforts also included planting new native flora along the stream.

Restoration efforts also included planting new native flora along the stream.

Ākonga voices

Year 9 students at Aorere College tell Education Gazette what they enjoy about their stream restoration project.

Vicane: I enjoy competing to pick up the most rubbish, making a difference and seeing a cleaner creek.

Campbell: It’s fun learning to use the various equipment, like the testing equipment. It’s interesting to see that there are some physical science jobs that are outside. That is the type of job I want.

Fabian: Helping the environment and showing others’ good deeds. I expected us to notice something with our efforts because the area was very untidy when we started.

James: I enjoy cleaning up the area and making sure the animals we wanted were able to stay there.

Khalia: It felt good to help the environment. The area was dirtier than I expected, but there were eels and inanga there!

Tehya: Cleaning up the environment is enjoyable. I didn’t realise so many things we can’t see were in the water.

Amaezis: I enjoy getting out of school and into the environment. It was different.

Halana: I like that we worked together to make plans and then seeing a difference at the stream. I didn’t expect eels and native fish to be there.

Hiramaia: I enjoy planting the trees. It was surprising that the water was so alive.

Sydney: I enjoy physically learning to plant trees, which I’d never done before. Testing the particles in the water and identifying germs/bacteria in the stream. Lots of rubbish everywhere, but also inanga.

Vala: Cleaning up our whenua, learning about all of the different wanted and unwanted plants and the types of animals that are living in this environment. It’s surprising because I thought the water would be more polluted.

Sam: I enjoy planting 500+ plants, and also growing our own kowhai seedlings in class. Cleaning up the whenua and making a difference is cool and learning about the different types of animals in the creek. We found native fish, eels, lots of trees too, which was surprising to detect in the awa.

Tristahn: Planting trees and looking after them. The creek was cleaner afterwards.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 11:05 am, 30 March 2023

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