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Using the Tama River as an Educational Resource

By Mark Van Den Bossche

06/21/2017

With the revamping of our elective courses and the adoption of a project-based learning unit, I was given the opportunity to spend five lessons per week introducing students to the learning opportunities provided by a river system.

St. Mary’s International School is located in western Tokyo close to the Tama River (Tamagawa), which acts as a boundary between Tokyo and Kawasaki. This green artery bisects one of the mostly densely populated parts of the Kanto Plain. Like all of Japan’s rivers—with the exception of those in the Shiretoko National Park, in Hokkaido—this is a heavily managed system; nevertheless, there is plenty to interest middle school students.

I have been studying this river, mostly from an ornithological perspective, for the past 18 years; but I, too, had many unanswered questions related to it. How polluted is the river? What impact are invasive species having on the native fauna? What is the potential for rewilding the river?

The students worked collaboratively on questions that they devised themselves. Three days out of five were spent collecting data and the other two days were spent collating it; a daily log for each visit was the only non-negotiable part of the course. This course lasted 12 weeks or so, at the end of which the students had to present their findings at an “open afternoon.”

I was gratified to discover that the students did not need much prompting in coming up with research topics. For many of them, the visit to the river became the highlight of their day. We got to see firsthand some exciting action: a peregrine falcon swooping at feral pigeons, Japanese carp spawning, over 100 assorted egrets and herons in a feeding frenzy, and a black kite in a mid-air duel with a pair of jungle crows.

What was more important, though, was the fact that the boys were doing authentic research. Much has been written about the river in the Japanese language but little in English. Our students, like many others living in an urban environment, are divorced from the natural world and this course gave them an opportunity to do pond-dipping, bird watching, water testing, and other activities that most of my generation would have taken for granted.

By testing using Verbier probes, some of the students discovered that oxygen levels in the Tama River would currently prevent many species of fish from reproducing (although PH levels were close to normal). Other students catalogued up to 25 different species of birds during a 30-minute visit highlighting the biodiversity of this river system. Students who studied the impact of invasive species noted the presence of both American bullfrogs and red-eared slider turtles (the Tamagawa has been christened the “Tamazon” because of the 150 or so species of non-native fish that have been hauled from the river, including Piranha).

The exhibition afternoons gave the boys the opportunity to share their work with both parents and fellow students. Most used PowerPoint presentations but others made posters and one group made a video. Parents were amazed to discover there was so much life in the river.




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