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Crosby Elementary School fifth-graders Joan Estevez Flores, back, and Jacob Porter watch as Felix Sanabria attempts to capture small fish in Sackett Brook at Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield. The students are studying the ecology of the site in advance of an 80-year-old dam being removed in October to help restore a portion of the brook.

PITTSFIELD

Mass Audubon is working with local and state partners, including the Division of Ecological Restoration, to remove an 80-year-old dam in October and restore a section of Sackett Brook at Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary.

A group of more than 50 fifth-graders from Crosby Elementary School is helping Mass Audubon keep an eye on the ecology at the site as it makes this transition.

On Friday, the school group made its first site visit and conducted its first field study with Gayle Tardif-Raser, education coordinator for the sanctuary, and Alison Dixon from the Housatonic Valley Association.

The partnership is funded through a Natural Resource Damage grant drawn from the $15 million in natural resource damages that General Electric agreed to pay back in 2000 to state and federal trustees as the result of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination to the Housatonic River watershed.

Biologists hope that removing the 37-foot-wide, 7-foot-high Sackett Brook dam will provide free-flowing cold water that will encourage more species -- including protected species -- to flourish.

"It's important for [students] to understand that things live in streams and that there's great biodiversity here," Tardif-Raser said.

On Friday, the Crosby students used age-appropriate lab charts to record and track the effects of a stream that has a dam to control the water flow. They also measured pH and oxygen levels of the water, used nets and turkey-baited traps to collect and chart small fish and invertebrates, and visually assess the area around the brook before the dam is removed.

The students will continue meeting with Tardif-Raser and will return to Canoe Meadows and Sackett Brook in the spring to retest the area and look for changes at the site after the dam has been removed.

Fifth-grade teachers Jeanne Nailos, Annie Rutledge and Denise Cherry, and Bridget Risley, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher of students with special needs, watched and reacted with delight as students rushed up to them with finds like water beetles, salamanders and an approximately 8-inch-long crayfish.

Nailos said the field trip was the first of its kind for many of the students -- and likely one they'll remember.

"This ties in with the science standards we teach them," she said, "and hands-on learning helps them remember."

Fifth-grader Fanta Cissoko was exceptionally excited about her find: two slimy sculpins. Scientists called these small fish indicator species. Slimy sculpins like clean, cold streams, so the more of them there are, the more indicative it is of healthy stream conditions.

Initially proclaiming, "I'm gonna keep them," Cissoko later decided, "I'm going to find them some clean water to let them go."