Near the banks of the Potomac River, Donna West proudly holds up a crystal clear cup of water that had been a cloudy, brown mess 20 minutes earlier. The chemistry and advanced placement environmental science teacher at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia, has devised a way to clean the water sample using charcoal, alum, coffee filters, and bleach.
National Park Service ranger Dan Dressler, a member of a different water clean-up team, scrutinizes his group's pungent output. “I think we went overboard with the bleach," he remarks. Watching the molasses-slow drip of his group's water purification system, Bernard Cole, a science teacher from Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., identifies another experimental design problem. “I think we've got too many filters in here."
Eighteen teachers and park rangers are spending two weeks learning together how to teach high-school students to be stewards of the environment, while collecting authentic data that supports the science concepts they are learning in the classroom. The institute is part of Bridging the Watershed, a curriculum-based education program supported by a grant from Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Bridging the Watershed is an outreach program of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, in partnership with Rock Creek Nature Center in Rock Creek National Park, seven other national parks in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, school systems, and non-profit organizations.
It's all about the care of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, says Terry Carlstrom, regional director of the National Park Service, National Capital Region. “This program offers an opportunity for kids to understand their part in the bay—its natural heritage and cultural heritage. To understand what these resources are so they can protect them—for themselves and future generations."
First the educators contaminated jars of clear water with imitation weed killer, coalmine runoff, antifreeze, detergent, and sewage—typical pollutants in rivers like the Potomac. Then they competed to clean the mucky liquid, without losing too much water in the process. They will go back to their schools with a script, container labels, and recipes using similar pollution look-alikes, so their students can do it too.
“The kids like the water challenge because they're not told how to do it. They get to come up with their own approach," says Libby Campbell, a BTW educator. “Some screw up too, and they learn from it."
The children design experiments, collect data, and document their steps, Campbell explains during the summer institute that trains teachers to use the five-module BTW curriculum, and prepares park rangers to host school groups for their field studies in one of eight national parks in the D.C. metropolitan area.
The Institute begins and ends at Hard Bargain Farm in Accokeek, Maryland, just 10 miles downstream from Washington, D.C. The Alice Ferguson Foundation operates the bucolic 330 acres on the Potomac to teach students about stewardship of the earth's natural resources. Participants also travel to some of the region's national park sites—Great Falls, Rock Creek Park, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens—to assess the health of the waterway. They test for certain chemicals, use random sampling to measure the invasion of alien plants, and use the presence of macro-invertebrates they find in streams as a bio-indicator of water quality.
Throughout the two weeks, Campbell and other BTW educators teach about local flora and fauna in ways that would capture a teenager's interest. Campbell asks teachers and rangers to scoop water and mud from a stream. Then she identifies several stream swimmers and uses food coloring to show the varied ways they breathe. Tadpoles, for example, exhale through a blowhole on their left side; dragonfly nymphs breathe in and out of their anuses, a fact likely to capture almost any child's attention.
The teachers go home with a sense of the possibilities for using the modules in their classrooms—and using the national parks as outdoor laboratories. “My children really need to be engaged," says Muriel Martin, a social studies teacher at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. “Can you see inner-city kids coming here and seeing the peace and harmony—and that the parks are well maintained?" A teacher who started the two-week program with a comfort level in the outdoors that she rated a low three on a scale of eight, Martin returned to her school determined to start an environmental science club.