Georgia Students Get Feet Wet and Hands Dirty Learning the Importance of Water Quality

A watershed stewardship program in Georgia gives students of all ages hands-on experiences in monitoring stream quality.

Georgia Students Get Feet Wet and Hands Dirty Learning the Importance of Water Quality

Walton High School students work in the field at a tributary of Sewell Mill Creek, collecting stream cross-section measurements.

Change comes slowly when cleaning rivers and streams, so it’s up to the next generation to carry on the legacy of water stewardship.

For years, the Cobb County Watershed Stewardship Program based in Marietta, Georgia, has fought to protect Nickajack Creek, Rottenwood Creek, Sewell Mill Creek, Sope Creek, Sweetwater Creek, Willeo Creek and other streams.

Soon after the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the Cobb County Water System began collecting stream data. Over time, water-quality monitoring expanded to include community engagement and presentations. These efforts eventually led to the formation of the county watershed program.

Jennifer McCoy, watershed stewardship program coordinator, says the program aims to encourage practices to improve quality of life and promote respect for the environment by educating residents about the connection between behavior and water quality.

The major problems include runoff from impervious surfaces including chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides) and bacteria (pet waste), sedimentation, elevated water temperature, excessive stream flow, and invasive species. The stewardship program educates about these concerns and provides activities to address them.

Students of all ages

The program reaches students from third to 12th grade in the county’s 118 public schools. Younger students focus on basic lessons like “What Is a Watershed?” and “What Is Your Eco-Footprint?” Middle and high school students learn what county Water System personnel do to keep water sources clean and clear.

“The students put on their knee boots and get right in the stream to monitor water quality and conditions for themselves,” McCoy says. “We want them to understand how to look at a creek and determine if it is a healthy habitat. We even sometimes go to the school and do outdoor presentations if they have a stream close by. The hands-on experience is very valuable.”

A lesson for high school biology classes teaches that sediment is a problem because it covers up the rocks in the stream, destroying habitat for insects on which fish depend. Students also learn how nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous feed excess algae that can deplete oxygen and harmful aquatic life. Chemistry classes learn to perform pH and other testing on creek water samples.

Measuring success

While the program’s success will ultimately be measured in students who choose to become environmental protectors, McCoy is excited by the short-term victories. Those include reaching more than 88 percent of the county’s high schools and 52 percent of the middle schools in 2016. “Our big goal is to reach them all,” McCoy says. “We work very hard to shape our presentations so they fit the class curriculum. We want to work with the teachers to make sure we’re on the same page.”

High schools that use block scheduling are a good fit because students can spend longer periods of time in the field. They also have in-class programs where instructors bring water samples and testing equipment to create a “virtual laboratory” experience. “Clean water fits into so many lessons, and we like the challenge of finding a fit with each class,” McCoy says.

Dealing with diversity

County schools are in a mix of urban and rural areas, so elementary students bring varied outdoor backgrounds. “The younger students are often scared to be in the forest or on the water,” McCoy says. “A lot of students who live in the inner city haven’t been exposed to nature or haven’t had much opportunity to study an ecosystem. For some, this is their first chance to really see the wildlife of a stream. They ask questions like ‘Are there alligators in the water?’ or make statements like ‘I can’t swim’ or ‘I don’t want to drown.’ But once we get going, they are into the lesson, and before you know it, they are finding salamanders and holding insects.”

Older students, especially high school students in Advanced Placement and upper-level biology and chemistry courses, are more eager to get their hands dirty. “A lot of the Advanced Placement kids want to eventually go into a biology or chemistry field,” McCoy says. “This program allows them to explore their interests and make connections between what they’ve read in a book and the real world.”

Reaching out

McCoy has spoken with counterparts in other municipalities and is happy to share the successes and challenges. The key is to identify and build on small victories: “Just seeing the wonder in the kids’ eyes is the start. Don’t try to grow too big too fast. If you start small and build on the successes, it won’t be too overwhelming.”

She warns that it’s smart to know the program’s limitations and take care not to spread resources too thin. “When working with educators, you can’t over-commit and promise something you can’t deliver. In the end, we want to work with teachers to provide an enriching experience they can piggyback off of. That’s how the legacy continues.”


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