Open High School students fanned across the undulating rocks on the James River near the south end of Belle Isle, peering into a series of small circular pools that had formed over thousands of years and now pockmarked the exposed granite bedrock surface. On first glance, the pools looked no different from one another. However, as the students rotated from pool to pool, they learned from the day’s instructors, a collection of senior biology students from Virginia Commonwealth University, about the subtle but significant distinctions between the tiny ecosystems and the conditions that had created them.
One group of students marveled at the trails that snails had etched across the muddy bottom of a pool. Then they moved to an adjacent pool to study hydrilla, the invasive plant species that had flourished there. Nearby, VCU student-instructors explained the insect life that had taken hold in two small pools, including one where mosquitoes thrived precisely because the setting was so inhospitable for any other form of life — including predators. Students near shore received a close-up examination of the leaves and branches of multiple species of trees, learning the nuances that separated one piece of plant life from another and how leaf litter falling into pools near the forest edge could form the base of the food web.
The overall effect on the teenagers was one of a gentle nudging awake. Here, these simple rock pools were serving as a real-life lab where many of the scientific principles they studied in class were playing out in compelling fashion. For most of the students, the small pools and their inhabitants would never have attracted more than a casual glance. Now, as their instructors brought each insect or plant into sharp relief, the lifeless came alive. The pools transformed into portals to unique worlds inhabited by remarkable creatures, all in an urban setting within a short walk of their school and in sight of the whining weekday traffic above them on the Lee Bridge.