A Watershed Education
As an eighth-grade physical science teacher at Centreville Middle School, Amy Bauer knows that much of what she teaches in the classroom is connected in one way or another to the Chester River watershed. But until she participated this summer in Washington College’s Rivers to Bay program, she had no idea just how much. Along with 18 other teachers from Kent and Queen Anne’s public schools, as well as one teacher from the private Kent School, Bauer spent a good chunk of her summer working with Doug Levin, deputy director of the College’s Center for Environment & Society, getting a full immersion into the river in her back yard.
The program, which was funded by the Maryland Department of Education in partnership with both counties, is a cornerstone in the CES’ innovative Chester River Watershed Observatory. The driving concept behind the observatory, Levin says, is to get local students from kindergarten through high school involved in monitoring the waters in their home watershed—the Chester—recording the data they gather, and adding it to an online database.
As they progress through grades, students’ abilities will grow more sophisticated and so will their data. For instance, in kindergarten they can build a basic buoy and get acquainted with observing weather information; by sixth grade they can build Basic Observation Buoys (BOBs) with real-time monitoring capabilities, and record everything from water temperature and salinity to pH and turbidity. By high school they will have built working underwater robots (Aquabotz) and be eligible to lead the Chester River Youth Watershed Council, which is being created to contribute to the Chester River Association’s environmental work. When they graduate, students will have not only a 12-year dataset and skills in building robotics and doing field research, but also a deeply earned connection to the health and welfare of the Chester River and, by natural extension, the Chesapeake Bay.
The program dovetails perfectly with the state’s initiative in teaching children “environmental literacy,” as well as the emphasis on STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, says Britt Slattery, director of conservation education for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. On a mid-August morning, Slattery joined Levin and the teachers on a trip aboard the College’s research vessel Callinectes from Chestertown to the Kent School, where they reviewed their summer’s work. “STEM and environmental literacy go hand in hand,” Slattery says, “and Doug’s program is an awesome example of this.”
The teachers began their watershed education in early summer with a canoe trip to the Chester’s headwaters in Millington. They followed that traveling aboard Callinectes to Love Point, where the river meets the Bay. They took water samples, experimented with side-scan sonar, and observed how the water and landscape change along the river’s 40-some miles. For Bauer, who had never traveled the entire river, despite teaching here for 21 years, this was eye opening.
“It was so interesting to see how different it is from top to bottom and to see the great impact of farms upriver and then all the development downriver,” Bauer says.
Paul Taylor, who teaches fourth grade at Church Hill Elementary School, says “paying attention to the river” in and of itself was a valuable experience. “Everything is a question—why is it deeper on one side than the other, why is this growing here, why are there these lines in the sand? I’ve been around the river, fishing in it, things like that, but not quite the experience we have here with the science of it.”
The teachers learned how to use GPS and GIS to map the watershed; how to build buoys and Aquabotz; and how to build and implement sensors to monitor parameters such as temperature, salinity, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, pH, nitrates and phosphates. Now they’re integrating all of this into their curricula.
“The Aquabotz is such a wonderful culminating activity for these kids, they’re going to love it,” Bauer says. Taylor says his fourth-graders are already excited about the program after Levin and Ben Ford, CES special projects assistant, came to school last spring and presented the Build a Buoy (BAB) exercise. “This is part of our backyard, this is our home, and it’s pretty awesome that we’re part of this,” he says.
In the Spring of 2014, this program will bring K-12 students from both counties to a Washington College-sponsored student colloquium where they will present their own research on a variety of environmental issues in the Chester River.