Smallwood students learn about local water quality through hands-on experiences

Waldorf, MD- Seventh graders at General Smallwood Middle School last week learned just how good their local water supply is during a unit on watersheds. The activity was part of Charles County Public Schools’ (CCPS) partnership with the Alice Ferguson Foundation and the Bridging the Watershed program. Students in Brittany Johnson’s life science classes conducted hands-on water quality testing on samples pulled from a local watershed.

On Oct. 25, Johnson’s students left the traditional classroom setting and spent their class period at an outdoor lab outside the school. Jennifer Young and Laura Taylor, environmental education assistants from the Nanjemoy Creek Environmental Education Center, brought water samples from a watershed area located next to the Indian Head Rail Trail for the students to test. Students worked in teams to collect water samples and perform six water quality tests to determine the level of nitrates and other chemicals in the water.

Smallwood seventh grader Sharrecka Fenwick said she especially liked the activity because she enjoys hands-on activities and lessons in which she can learn about her environment. “I love science and STEM activities. In the tests today, we get to see the different nitrates that are in our water. We know what the quality of water is in our area,” she said.

As part of the activity, students tested water samples for things such as dissolved oxygen levels, pH levels, phosphates, nitrates, dissolved solids and turbidity, or cloudiness from particles in the water. The following day, the students then averaged the data from their tests to rate the water samples as either excellent, good, fair or poor.

“We accumulated our data to find the average for every water quality test, which then guided us to the overall water quality of excellent,” Johnson said. “Students were pleasantly surprised because they expected the phosphate and nitrate levels to be higher due to the fertilizers used in Southern Maryland.”

Johnson’s life science students participated in the activity as part of a learning standard about the human impact on the ecosystem. Prior to testing the water samples, students studied a unit about the environment. The lesson helped emphasize the environmental impacts in their own geographic area. “The water they are using is the same as what they have at home. They are learning about how pollution will directly affect them,” Johnson said.

Seventh grader Ariel Romero enjoys being outdoors and learning in nature. Science and art top his list of favorite subjects. Romero said he especially liked this particular activity because he loves to problem solve. “I enjoy finding problems and figuring out how to solve them. So far, our water samples have scored in the excellent range … our water is pretty clean,” he said.

Following the results of the water samples, students then completed an action project in which they highlighted an idea or project to help keep their local environments clean. “We should try and make filters for our watersheds. That would be fun,” Fenwick said.

The activity also is part of the seventh-grade student service learning (SSL) requirement in which students work to research and identity an action project and participate in a reflective process. Johnson said her goal for the unit is for students to study and understand how much of an impact they can make. “I look most forward to the moment where students realize that their actions have a bigger impact on just Indian Head and Nanjemoy. Their actions impact the ecosystem at large,” Johnson said. 

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