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 2013 Summer Academy students and faculty

Twelve Pennsylvania students made an exciting discovery while taking part in Clarion University Honors Program’s 2013 Summer Academy, Watershed Restoration and Protection: A portion of a creek that has shown no evidence of fish population for more than 50 years due to acid mine drainage is now inhabited by minnows.

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Summer Academy participants get up close to examine a water sample.

Each summer, Clarion University offers the Summer Academy for academically talented high school students. Those interested in the sciences, who are entering their sophomore, junior or senior year of high school, may apply. The academy, funded by contributions from Pennsylvania General Energy Co., and Robindale Energy Services, trains students to use of the tools of aquatic ecology and the emerging technology of geospatial analysis to assess the chemical and biological integrity of local streams.

Summer Academy students collected data on water quality in Mill Creek, the Allegheny River, Clarion River and Clarion River tributaries Tom’s Run and Cather’s Run.

During a day of field work comparing water quality in Mill Creek and Cather’s Run, students found that water quality in lower Mill Creek has improved substantially in recent years. Most exciting, they discovered that fish are now present at the creek’s Fisher Road site. This is the first documented occurrence of fish in lower Mill Creek in more than 50 years. This discovery is the long-awaited culmination of years of effort and several million dollars of investments into reclamation efforts, according to Dr. Andrew Turner, professor of biology and environmental science and one of the faculty members who leads the academy.

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Peter Timashenka (left), Mercer, collects water samples with biology professor Dr. Steve Harris.

“No one was more surprised by this finding than I was,” Turner said. “I didn’t even believe it until I saw the fish myself. Because the Mill Creek project has, from its inception, offered opportunities to synthesize research, teaching and outreach, it seems especially fitting that these high school students should be the ones who first documented this key event in the restoration of Mill Creek.”

Peter Timashenka of Mercer and Rebecca Dudek of Sarver were among the students to make the discovery.

“We were eating lunch, and we could see different kinds of bugs,” Timashenka said. “We were just starting to get the nets together. We went into the water and little fish came right up to the side of the net.”

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Becca Dudek (back to camera), Sarver, helps handle netting during an excursion to Cook Forest. Biology professor Dr. Andy Turner (right), guides the process.

“(The faculty) told us they had never found life there. They had put in (multiple) passive treatment systems, and this is the effect,” Dudek said. “Through the rest of the week it escalated, and we realized we had made a discovery. We were actually being scientists.”

A passive treatment system is an artificial wetland designed to treat acid mine drainage by adding alkalinity and removing dissolved metals from the water, according to Turner. Acid mine drainage is the outflow of acidic water from abandoned deep mines and strip mines. Placement of the treatment systems and much of the reclamation work has been done by the Mill Creek Coalition of Clarion and Jefferson Counties. Clarion University Department of Biology faculty work in conjunction with the coalition.

“We are involved in several long-term monitoring projects,” Turner said. “Tom’s Run, the stream that drains Cook forest, is another that we have watched recover over the years.”

Timashenka and Dudek were surprised by the level of science taught at the academy.

“I thought it would be educational, but not so hands-on,” Dudek said. “The first day we learned about parameters to test water quality. We covered macroinvertebrates and learned about the way they can help you determine water quality.”

Timashenka said the extensive field work surprised him.

“I wasn’t expecting to go out (in the field) every day. There were a lot more experiments than I anticipated. I really learned a lot,” he said.

Timashenka began classes this week at Clarion University, majoring in environmental biology. Dudek, who also plans to major in environmental biology, is a senior at Freeport High School who has already been accepted for admission to Clarion University.

The academy involved extensive field work; students played an active role in designing research projects and shaping data analysis. They presented the results of their projects in a symposium at the conclusion of the week. Activities were carried out in the laboratories of the new Joseph P. Grunenwald Center for Science and Technology, as well as at the many excellent local field sites.

Dr. Steve Harris, professor of aquatic biology, and Joe Fiedor, biology instructor, were also faculty members for Summer Academy.

In addition to Timashenka and Dudek, students who participated are:

  • Jovan Longs-Tucker, Philadelphia

  • Reanna Buzza, Springdale

  • Ian Bond, Danville

  • Steven Lippold, Cranberry Township

  • Sarah Minnix, Pittsburgh

  • Rosemary Brooker, Marble

  • Ryan Fan, Pittsburgh

  • Sofia Garman, Pittsburgh

  • Shannon Ankney, Rector

  • Jeremy Adams, Fairmount City

Clarion University is the high-achieving, nationally recognized, comprehensive university that delivers a personal and challenging academic experience.

8/27/2013 9:45 AM

Young scientists see return of life to local stream at Clarion University Summer Academy