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Sustainable Schools Blog

The Sustainable Schools program helps students of all ages protect our ecosystem and live sustainably. We provide hands-on education on waste prevention, water conservation, energy efficiency and climate change for all grade levels. Read more.

  • Students research how our watershed is connected to orca survival by Natalie Lord, Young Water Stewards Education SpecialistTracing orca population decline down the food chainLooking through the lens of a pressing issue in our region, students in the ...
    Posted Dec 5, 2018, 3:06 PM by Simon Bakke
  • Protecting What We Love: Whatcom Students are up to the Challenge! School started across Whatcom County in late August and early September. I don’t know about you, but that feels like a lifetime ago! We at Sustainable Schools have a ...
    Posted Nov 15, 2018, 4:01 PM by Hannah Coughlin
  • Easing the Burden on People and the Environment at Birchwood Elementary by Sasha Savoian, Sustainable Schools Education SpecialistPurchasing clothing for the new school year can cause financial strain on families but children grow so much year to year it becomes ...
    Posted Oct 3, 2018, 12:04 PM by Hannah Coughlin
  • Teaching STEM streamside and in the Classroom By Andrea ReiterAfter completing the Young Water Stewards program in my 15th classroom this year, a Ferndale High School student asked me what my favorite part about teaching this ...
    Posted Jun 7, 2018, 10:42 AM by Hannah Coughlin
  • Upcycled: Art and science students find creative uses for waste By Sasha Savoian, Education SpecialistWhat can you make from materials otherwise destined for the landfill? Sustainable Schools new waste prevention workshop, Upcycled, allows middle and high schools students in ...
    Posted Apr 10, 2018, 4:55 PM by Simon Bakke
Showing posts 1 - 5 of 21. View more »

Students research how our watershed is connected to orca survival

posted Nov 29, 2018, 9:19 AM by Hannah Coughlin   [ updated Dec 5, 2018, 3:06 PM by Simon Bakke ]

by Natalie Lord, Young Water Stewards Education Specialist

Tracing orca population decline down the food chain

Looking through the lens of a pressing issue in our region, students in the Young Water Stewards program traced the problem down the food chain, where they reached the orcas’ main food source: chinook salmon. Unfortunately, Puget Sound chinook (also known as king salmon) are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, which means they are well on their way to join the southern residents orcas as an endangered species. 

Chinook spend the beginning and end of their lives in our watershed, so students were able to identify the connection between land-based pollution and effects on all levels of the chinook’s food chain. Watershed science — studying the interconnected rivers, storm drains, and every waterway in between that eventually make their way to sea — is the basis of the Young Water Stewards program, and the key to the puzzle of the orcas’ predicament. 

Saving the southern residents is a one of our region’s greatest challenges right now.  To this end, the program empowers students to take action in their local watershed through an introduction to water quality sampling, non-point source pollution, and “best management practices,” all culminating with a stewardship project. By connecting current pollution facing the Salish Sea, the program engages students on smaller-scale water quality issues in their communities to ultimately make a difference at the regional level. 

What do whales, salmon, and shellfish have in common? 

Answer: pollution. Pollution — from human land use practices — enters the marine ecosystem of whales, salmon, and shellfish and builds up in their bodies over time. 

More than 200 students from Blaine and Meridian High Schools examined the same water quality problem in two different school districts: shellfish bed closures where their watersheds meet the ocean. 

With guidance from Blaine teacher Jennifer Wright, we took the Young Water Stewards program to the next level — enriching the curriculum to support national science standards (NGSS) with a 3-dimensional approach for the freshman biology students. In class, students operated  watershed and groundwater models because the City of Blaine receives its drinking water from an underground aquifer. Next, they compared two creeks in their watershed: Dakota Creek, a salmon-bearing stream, and Cain Creek, which runs through Blaine and has not seen a salmon in many years. With a firsthand look at their own watershed, students quickly realized how urban environments act as a gauntlet for salmon returning to spawn, loaded with fish passage barriers such as road culverts.  

Water Sampling — a scientific assessment of pollution

Chemistry students at Meridian High learned that water’s unique chemical composition gives it the ability to dissolve more substances than any other liquid. This means wherever water goes, whether that be in our bodies or the ecosystem, it carries minerals, nutrients, and harmful substances along with it. Students sampled and analyzed water quality samples from Tenmile Creek to determine their watershed health. On a bus tour of their watershed, students saw livestock and berry farms surrounding Tenmile Creek — and saw the importance of vegetated buffers along the creek from each farm implementing Best Management Practices. 

Back in the classroom, the pieces to the orca puzzle fell into place.  After taking water samples and seeing firsthand how non-point source pollution enters their watershed, the students recognized that human actions and systems have repercussions that eventually make their way downstream and into the Salish Sea. 

Our everyday actions up here on land are causing problems at sea. So what can your average high school student do about it? Equipped with knowledge on water quality issues right where they live, students complete a stewardship action project. This fall, Meridian students made a social media post for their high school and did a campus litter cleanup after a football game. In Blaine, students removed invasive plants and planted native ones, completely transforming the riparian habitat that many students walk by each day. When the program is complete, students have a deeper understanding and the tools to make choices that reflect how they value clean water, and the people and environments that depend on it. 

For more information about the Young Water Stewards program, visit our website or contact Natalie Lord

Protecting What We Love: Whatcom Students are up to the Challenge!

posted Nov 15, 2018, 3:45 PM by Hannah Coughlin   [ updated Nov 15, 2018, 4:01 PM ]

School started across Whatcom County in late August and early September. I don’t know about you, but that feels like a lifetime ago! We at Sustainable Schools have a mission to help students understand the impacts their choices have on the world around them. Our goal is for students to walk away with a feeling of empowerment to protect our precious resources.

That sounds daunting.

But, in fact, whether in elementary, middle or high school, the youth of Whatcom County are more than up to the challenge. How do I know?

After explaining to a high school class that their food waste gets put on a truck or train and then shipped across the state to get dumped in a landfill when instead it could simply be composted right here in Whatcom County. I heard a “That ain’t right!” from the back of the classroom. I must agree. It isn’t right. But the youth of Whatcom County are ready to make some changes to set things right.

Take for example Mrs. Andrews and Mr. Johnson’s 3rd-grade classes at Acme Elementary who wanted to help the custodian, Jeff Schmidt, with his recycling duties. They decided to implement a recycling monitoring program in their school. After they learned about waste prevention, the students gifted every classroom at Acme with a decorated recycling bucket. Each bucket had photo examples of acceptable recyclables, along with hand-drawn pictures of recycling reminders. The students were so excited to learn about ways to reduce their waste and to help others to do the same.

At Birchwood Elementary in September over 500 pounds of clothing was donated to families for back to school needs. Before the Clothing Market was held, Birchwood hosted an all-school assembly where students learned about the importance of reusing or passing along textiles rather than sending them to the landfill. Sustainable Schools Green Classroom coordinator reinforced this education by leading waste prevention workshops with 2nd graders this fall.

Across town at Fairhaven Middle School, Joel Gillman’s 7th grade COMPASS students are learning about how bacteria, pesticides, and chemicals flow into our watershed through stormwater and they are taking action to reduce these pollutants. A Sustainable Schools Education Specialist led students outside around the campus so they could locate and label storm drains to educate others that stormwater goes directly into nearby Padden Creek and into Bellingham Bay. To help dog owners learn the importance of picking up after their pet, these students made “We Scoop” kits to give to new dog owners complete with personal note thanking them for protecting our water.

At the high school level, Sustainable Schools assisted the Environmental Club at Squalicum High School in conducting a waste audit in the cafeteria. After school last week, sixteen students used tongs to sift through the Food Plus and garbage bins to discover how well their fellow classmates are recycling or not. Students weighed and recorded the data and began to think about ways they can educate others about what items should go in the appropriate bins.

After investigating why the local orca Southern Residents are racing extinction, why Chinook salmon population is crashing, and why shellfish harvesting is restricted, Blaine high school students restored a riparian area of Cain Creek by removing invasive species and planting natives. Meridian high school students rejuvenated campus after a football game with several litter cleanups and then used social media as a platform to engage their fellow classmates on water quality issues in the Tenmile Creek watershed.

These students discovered the ingredients to Washington’s greatest source of pollution: stormwater runoff. They now have the knowledge base as Young Water Stewards to initiate change in their community’s watershed and ultimately the greater ecosystem health of the Salish Sea.

What incredible work the students of Whatcom County are doing. It seems that when they identify a problem, or something that “ain’t right”, they hold the knowledge and power to be able to fix it! Thank you to the teachers and administrations that partner with Sustainable Schools in order to continue to instill resilience in today’s students.

Easing the Burden on People and the Environment at Birchwood Elementary

posted Oct 3, 2018, 11:16 AM by Hannah Coughlin   [ updated Oct 3, 2018, 12:04 PM ]

by Sasha Savoian, Sustainable Schools Education Specialist

Purchasing clothing for the new school year can cause financial strain on families but children grow so much year to year it becomes necessary to replace the outgrown clothes. Then comes the question of what to do with the now ill fitting clothes piling up in closets and dresser drawers. The average American sends 70 pounds of textiles to the landfill each year creating one of the fastest growing waste streams. How best can we ease the burden both for people and for the environment?

On September 18th, Birchwood Elementary in partnership with RE Sources’ Sustainable Schools program hosted a Back-to-School Clothing Market where families could shop for free! Thanks to all the generous donations from our community, we successfully diverted 550 pounds of clothing from entering the landfill and into the hands of people who need it most. 

Volunteers and staff quickly transformed the cafeteria at Birchwood Elementary into a clothing market after school. Lunch tables were loaded with jeans, shirts, pants, sweaters, coats, sweatshirts, warm hats, shorts, dresses, skirts, backpacks, shoes, and sports equipment. Families slowly began filing in and in less an hour after opening the doors, the market was bustling with happy shoppers filling boxes and bags with clothing. Tables emptied as fast as volunteers could put out more clothing. Nearly all of the almost 600 pounds of donated textiles found new homes!

As I stood at the door greeting people or waving goodbye, dozens of people expressed gratitude for their new clothing as smiling students showed off their newly acquired items. One woman in particular talked to me for several minutes about what a blessing this event is for so many people and thanked me over and over. And almost every day since the market, a young student shows off her newly acquired sweatshirt jacket with warm pockets and hood to staff at school. So a hearty thank you to everyone that made this event possible.

For the environment, the textile and clothing industry is the second largest polluter behind the oil industry and uses vast amounts of water in manufacturing clothing. In the U.S. alone, 27 billion pounds of textiles end up in landfills every year, a number that continues to grow every year. Much of our clothing is made from synthetic material that takes hundreds of years to break down in a landfill contributing to water and air pollution. By donating clothes to those in our own community we are also reducing waste that ends up in landfills. Way to work together Bellingham to create change that matters!

Teaching STEM streamside and in the Classroom

posted Jun 7, 2018, 10:42 AM by Hannah Coughlin

By Andrea Reiter

After completing the Young Water Stewards program in my 15th classroom this year, a Ferndale High School student asked me what my favorite part about teaching this program was. With no hesitation I told the class that my favorite part is taking students to the creek to collect scientific data. 

There has been a big push for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in the k-12 school system, the Young Water Stewards program combines all the components of STEM in the multi-day program. STEM is woven into the program through collecting stream-side water quality data, discussing how engineers design Best Management Practices to keep water clean, mathematics as the students analyse the water quality data they collected and compare it to historical data, and technology when we talk about applied science and future careers in the field of water science.

Every time students put on goggles and gloves and begin to test water quality I hear “I feel like a real scientist!” To which I reply, “You are a real scientist!”.

During their water quality testing in the field, students collect data on dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH, turbidity, and fecal coliform bacteria. When back in the classroom we stress the importance of multiple points of data over a period of time to create trends, human error in collecting data, and scale of the data we are collecting (if your measurement tool only reads to whole numbers, you cannot guess a half number eg. pH reads in between 7 and 7.5 on the test kit, we will record 7-7.5 rather than 7.25).

Unlike the scientific experiments students do in the classroom where the teacher knows what the results are, students in the Young Water Stewards program are doing applied science. Applied Science is when you take scientific processes and use them in the field to collect data. When we go to test water quality of a given creek, I don’t know what the pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, or turbidity will be; we are all completing the study together. 

Back in the classroom while analyzing the results, students begin to theorize why a water quality parameter might be off. In the case of Schell Creek in Ferndale, some students collected a range of 5-
7 ppm for dissolved oxygen 
before the creek flows through a culvert (underground pipe) that goes under downtown Ferndale and then another class got 1.5-3 ppm downstream of the culvert. I asked the students why they think the dissolved oxygen might be lower downstream of the culvert and they came up with theories that included: there were no aquatic plants growing the the culvert because there is no sunlight, and the lack of contact with the atmosphere while the water was in the pipe might have caused the dissolved oxygen to decrease.

My biggest goal in teaching students about human land uses, non-point source pollution, and water quality issues is that they will begin to see the world around them differently. That they will begin to think more like scientists, ask questions, and make hypothesis about how we use the land and the implications that has on water quality. 

Learn more about the Young Water Stewards program, or sign your students up!

Upcycled: Art and science students find creative uses for waste

posted Apr 10, 2018, 4:22 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Apr 10, 2018, 4:55 PM ]

By Sasha Savoian, Education Specialist

What can you make from materials otherwise destined for the landfill? Sustainable Schools new waste prevention workshop, Upcycled, allows middle and high schools students in Whatcom County to creatively explore waste diversion by reusing discarded materials in a project. “Reusing” is one of the 4 R’s of waste prevention: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot.

The average American produces 4.5 pounds of waste per day. Before the creative process can begin, students learn the fate of Whatcom County’s waste – two landfills near the Columbia River, about 400 miles away – and the impacts landfills have on the environment and on communities. Once an item is thrown into a landfill, it gets buried, and the lack of oxygen chokes out the decomposition process and produces methane gas. Students try to guess the amount of time it takes for certain items to break down completely once buried in a landfill. Aluminum can? 200-400 years. Plastic jug? 1 million years to forever.

After participating in the Upcycled workshop, Shuksan Middle School, 6th & 7th grade art students will create projects made from textiles and used bike tubes. Roughly 3.8 billion pounds of textiles are added to landfills in America every year and using fabrics in art pieces is one way to reduce this number. Students brainstorm other ideas such as having a clothing swap or donating any textiles they don’t want anymore to thrift stores. 

Lynden Christian High School students are researching artists of the world who implement discarded materials in art pieces to inspire their own creation made from items found around their homes.  Artists make anything from garden trinkets, to sculptures made from plastics found on beaches, to art installations in neighborhoods. 

Environmental science students and art students at Options High School are collaborating on the creation of upcycled projects. Each art student will make masks with found objects, and the science students will research an issue of their choosing related to waste. Once the research is completed, classes will work together to make a sculpture that teaches people about the issue.

Plastics have contaminated just about everywhere in the environment, especially in our oceans. Students learn about the five main ocean gyres – large-scale currents where plastics collect, some the size of Texas. China is no longer accepting our plastics, rapidly filling up recycling centers until they are finally shipped to landfills instead. Students brainstorm ways we can reduce the amount of plastic we use and suggest reusing and recycling. What projects can we create from used plastic?

Upcycled is one of four waste prevention workshops offered to middle and high school students in Whatcom County by Sustainable Schools. Check out the website for more information. 

Green Classrooms programs updated, using your input!

posted Apr 10, 2018, 3:56 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Apr 10, 2018, 3:56 PM ]

By Isis Gamble, Green Classroom Coordinator (AmeriCorps)

Teachers—we hear you! Thanks to your awesome feedback on our Green Classrooms program, we have been able to update all three lessons to fit your classroom needs and better align with Next Generation Science Standards. The three Green Classroom programs are Waste PreventionEnergy Efficiency & Climate Change, and Water Conservation. Learn more about the curricula here.

The Sustainable Schools team here at RE Sources has been busy reviewing and updating the lessons. Our water conservation lesson is now more hands-on with more opportunities for visual learners, our waste prevention lesson now offers a deeper dive into concepts of reduction, and our energy efficiency lesson has incorporated new team-building excises through small group discussions. 

So far in the 2017-18 school year, 12 classes have participated in the energy efficiency program, 23 classes have participated in the water conservation program, and 35 classes have participated in the waste prevention program. It’s not too late to sign up for one of the three programs we offer and join the classrooms in Whatcom County taking the next step towards sustainability.

Spring is in full bloom which makes outdoor learning opportunities even more abundant. Join us in learning about our environment and sustainability in a meaningful, hands-on, and local way. Be the first to try out our newly updated lesson plans and action projects! 

Green Classrooms in action

Thirza Zagelow’s 5th grade class at Cascadia Elementary and Shannon Sampson’s 5th grade class at Columbia Elementary School have both completed all three of the Green Classrooms programs.

Each class did unique action projects, including making notebooks with recycled art covers, creating comic books to educate others about energy efficiency, and making droplet-shaped reminders water-saving reminders. Both classes had six one hour-long in-class visits and will be pilot groups for a new Healthy Communities project we are rolling out. Congrats to both classes for being champions of sustainability at their school! 

Sustainable Schools: clean water education in Whatcom County

posted Dec 6, 2017, 1:54 PM by Hannah Coughlin   [ updated Dec 6, 2017, 2:00 PM ]

Stormwater runoff is Washington’s biggest source of pollution.  Stormwater can contain bacteria, trash, oil, toxic chemicals, viruses, dirt, and many other pollutants; collectively called non-point source pollution. When stormwater enters a storm drain, it does not get filtered but is piped to the nearest waterway, carrying with it lots of pollution.  This fall, students from three schools in Whatcom County hosted Sustainable Schools programs to learn about local water quality issues and to take action. 

At Shuksan Middle School in Bellingham, all 6th grade science students learned about pollution in stormwater and modeled how pollution moves through a watershed from land to the water through Sustainable Schools Stormwater Education. In the week(s) prior to our visit, , students were introduced to waterquality issues and how humans can impact water quality aboard the Snow Goose. The Sustainable Schools team then completed a follow-up lesson at school focusing on their local watershed: Squalicum Creek. Students then put their learning into action.  In an effort to decrease non-point source pollution, AVID students installed a dog bag dispenser station at the entrance to their soccer field to encourage pet-owners to pick up dog poop when utilizing the field and assembled new dog owner kits to educate City of Bellingham residents about the importance of picking up after their dog. The kits were then given to the Whatcom Humane Society to hand out alongside adopted dogs. 

All 9th grade science Students at Blaine High School completed a five-day Young Water Stewards program. The students learned about how human’s everyday activities can contribute to non-point source pollution in the watershed. They learned how this pollution is then carried into Cain Creek (their nearby waterway) through stormwater runoff. The students tested water quality analyzed their results and compared it to historic data. After discussing how Best Management Practices can be implemented to reduce pollution, students  completed a stewardship project where they removed three truckloads of invasive species and approximately 30 pounds of trash!,  Twelve trees were then planted and three yards of mulch was spread in an effort to reduce the amount of suspended sediments polluting the water. 

Nooksack Valley High School, part of the Everson School District, asked Sustainable Schools to offer the Young Water Stewards Program as an elective. Once a week for eight weeks, students are participating in the program which is highlighting rural land-uses that are contributing to non-point source pollution and utilizing the Sumas River as the case study. Students are half way through the program and will complete their learning by designing and implementing an action project in January that will help mitigate the pollutant they determine to be the biggest contribution to non-point source pollution in the Sumas River. 

Students from all three schools are doing their part to help clean up our water. You can too! Keeping non-point source pollution out of our water is easy:
  • Scoop the poop. Pick up pet waste daily or often to keep bacteria, viruses, and excess nutrients out of the water.
  • Wash your car at an Industrial car wash. Soap contains surfactants and chemicals, if washing at home, that soapy water will find its way into the nearby water. Industrial car washes send the used water to a waste water treatment plant that can properly remove chemicals.
  • Don’t drip and drive. Ensure your car is not leaking, and if it is take it to a mechanic to stop the leak. Annually, Americans drip over 180 million gallons of oil much of which finds its way into our water!
  • Avoid fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides. These run off your lawn, garden, roof and driveway the next time it rains. 
    • The presence of herbicides and pesticides in the water can result in death of aquatic plants and animals including salmon. 
    • When excess nutrients (any fertilizer added to the ecosystem causes an “overload”) enters the water, it promotes algae growth, algae have a short life and within the same season will bloom and then die. During the decaying process, dissolved oxygen is consumed resulting in extremely low dissolved oxygen levels creating “dead zones.”
If you are associated with a school and would like to host Sustainable Schools to teach about water or waste, contact us at schools@re-sources.org.

21st Century Kids Take On a 21st Century Problem: Non-Point Source Pollution

posted Aug 3, 2017, 12:48 PM by Hannah Coughlin   [ updated Aug 3, 2017, 12:49 PM ]

by Andrea Reiter, Education Specialist, Sustainable Schools Program 

Do you know what non-point source pollution is? How about the effects of non-point source pollution has on water quality? Or that we all are contributing to the problem? La Venture and Mount Baker Middle School students can now help you not only answer these questions having become Young Water Stewards of the Nookachamps Creek and Skagit River. Throughout June and July, 24 Skagit Valley kids studied the Nookachamps Creek watershed and the impacts of non-point source pollution on the health of their stream through RE Sources’ Young Water Stewards Program. In a five-week course, students learned why non-point source pollution is a problem for water quality and the role we all play in non-point source pollution within our watershed. 

The program started out with an insight into the problem – non-point source pollution is being carried into our waterways through surface runoff. NOAA Education Coordinator, Casey Ralston, attended the program one day to show the impacts on aquatic life when exposed to surface runoff that is contaminated with non-point source pollution; NOAA scientists in Seattle exposed salmon to runoff water and 100% of salmon exposed died within 24 hours. In addition to the presence of pollution within our watershed, humans have changed the functionality of the watershed through the increase of impervious surfaces in the form of roads, houses, sports fields, and parking lots. These impervious surfaces do not allow water to infiltrate the soil, instead that water is forced to go into storm drains. The city of Mount Vernon alone has over 5,000 storm drains.

After the students learned about the problem of non-point source pollution affecting the health of our watershed, we set off to test the water quality of the Nookachamps Creek. Through field laboratory kits, students tested the dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity, temperature, and the presence of fecal coliform bacteria. When asked what her favorite part of the 5-week program was; Mykila, a Boys & Girls participant stated: "when we went and tested water because it was fun and helped me learn". Half of a day in the field and three test sights later, students discovered that currently the biggest problem with the Nookachamps Creek is temperature and the presence of fecal coliform bacteria.

The following week, we discussed our water quality testing results and introduced the concept of Best Management Practices. Students discussed ways they and other residents of their watershed can reduce the non-point source pollutants in the water. To leave these kids with a sense of empowerment and the ability to solve problems within their community, we completed a few stewardship projects. Students labeled storm drains at La Venture Middle School, the school that the majority of the students will be attending in the fall, picked up trash on a Skagit Land Trust property, mulched native plants, and removed invasive species in a riparian zone along the Nookachamps Creek. "One fact I want to share with others (is) if you see a tree/baby plant put dirt or wood chips around it, so it can grow." Carmella, a Boys & Girls participant, stated during a reflection of our stewardship day.

Originally developed for high school students, the Young Water Stewards curriculum was adapted to middle school level and enhanced with more hands-on activities to engage a summer audience participating in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, & mathematics) summer enhancement program at a 21st Century Community Learning Classroom (21st CCLC) site. 21st CCLC are a nation-wide campaign to provide education and support during non-school hours for children in high poverty and/or low performing school districts. Through a National Marine Sanctuary Foundation grant, RE Sources was able to partner with the Boys and Girls Club of Skagit County (the 21st CCLC Host), NOAA, and the Skagit Land Trust to offer a meaningful watershed educational experience to youth.

  • 24 middle school students from Mount Baker and La Venture Middle School in Mount Vernon, WA 
  • 3 Nookachamps Creeks & tributary sites tested for water quality including temperature, turbidity, fecal coliform bacteria, pH, and dissolved oxygen 
  • Storm drains labeled on La Venture Middle School’s campus directly in front of the Boys & Girls Club Clubhouse 
  • 14 hours of watershed education and stewardship for each participant

Blaine High School students study their local watershed, tour salmon stream as part of Young Water Stewards

posted Jul 12, 2017, 11:11 AM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities   [ updated Jul 12, 2017, 11:11 AM ]

The Sustainable Schools and Clean Water programs at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities joined forces in 2016 to launch Young Water Stewards for high school students in rural Whatcom County, helping them develop an understanding of their local watersheds and how to be a steward of clean water. 

This spring, almost 200 high school students from Blaine participated in the Young Water Stewards training. Students learned how watersheds function through an interactive watershed model, learned how to conduct water quality testing, toured their local watershed to learn about different types of pollution, learned tips for how to protect the health of their local watershed, and took part in a stewardship project. 

Field notes from the North Sound Baykeeper

By Lee FirstNorth Sound Baykeeper

Spending 5 full days — with 7 classes per day — with Blaine High School students during the last week of their school year was not something I knew how to prepare for. I know a lot about the watersheds and pollution issues in Whatcom County — but working with 200 students during the last week of school? I let our Sustainable Schools staff figure out the details, and went along for the ride. 

We started the Young Water Stewards program by asking each student to fill out survey telling us what they knew about watersheds, and asking them to draw a watershed. Almost all of them drew a small building, sometimes next to water or with a tap. After a quick discussion about what a watershed ACTUALLY is, we split each class into two groups. Half of them stayed inside to listen to a presentation on watersheds, and other other half headed outside to build a watershed model. 

Building a watershed model

We built our watershed model with wadded up newspaper and a blue tarp plus plastic cars, homes, barns, factories, and animals. We crumpled up the newspaper in a pile, covered it with the blue tarp, then scattered the plastic pieces around the tarp to resemble farms and cities. Then, the fun part! We handed out containers of dirt, food coloring, glitter, and chocolate sprinkles, representing sediment, chemicals, heavy metals, and bacteria, respectively. After the stuff was tossed about, we sprayed our model with water. 

This model is an effective way to showcase a watershed, especially in Whatcom County. The students were aware that most of the water in the Nooksack River starts from snow melt on glaciers on Mount Baker. But what they didn’t know was that the watershed where they lived was not part of the Nooksack watershed – it’s part of the Drayton Harbor watershed, and their subwatershed is Cain Creek. Most of them didn’t know that water carried pollutants from the land along with it.

It was a hot day, and the water bottles were a hit. Water sprayed on the high point turned into tributaries, slowing down in areas that represented wetlands. The chocolate sprinkles and glitter flowed downstream, some farm animals got their feet wet, and a lot of sprinkles, dirt and glitter (aka pollution) ended up downstream. 

Touring Cain Creek

The next day, we toured Cain Creek, a local salmon-bearing stream. The students loaded on the school bus, and I was the tour guide. Leaving the city of Blaine, we discussed what kind of pollutants were in stormwater and where the stormwater goes (answer: Cain Creek). 

We passed a few farms, talked about problems caused by improper manure management, and stopped the bus near the headwaters of Cain Creek. We discussed the importance of headwater wetlands, the interplay between surface water and groundwater, and alterations of the land that have led to the filling in of wetlands. 

On the way back, we stopped at an industrial facility and viewed a large parking lot that drains into a wetland. From this area, Cain Creek heads into giant pipes, crosses under the freeway, pops up a few times, and finally reappears near the Blaine Post Office. Here, we got off the bus, walked to the edge of a steep bank, and peered down into the creek. 

It was sad. Garbage was strewn about, the stream was a browning trickle, and two huge storm drains were located right above the creek. The kids were surprised. We’d talked a lot about how stormwater from all the types of land uses we’d seen from the bus ended up in pipes connected to the creek, without any treatment. What they saw opened their eyes. A few were upset by the garbage and the color of the water.

Testing water quality 

The next day we showed the kids how to test water for temperature, turbidity, and pH. We found a place to access the creek with a neglected sign that said "Cain Creek – Salmon Stream."  A few kids noticed the sign and commented that if more people could see it, they might care more about the creek. Right on!

Taking on stewardship of storm drains

The last day we helped the kids with a stewardship project. Since we’d placed a big emphasis on pollution from stormwater, we decided the stewardship project would be to label the 60 storm drains on the Blaine High school campus and some areas of the surround neighborhoods with storm drain markers. In all, we labeled close to 100 storm drains. Another group of students went down to the creek, picked up litter, and cleared vegetation away from the salmon sign for all to see. 

The students really got the message: at the end of the week, they understood what a watershed is, what stewardship means, why clean water is important, and some positive steps to prevent pollution. They understood that what we do on the land can have a detrimental impact to water quality downstream. And they learned a few steps they could take right in their own Cain Creek watershed to increase the health of the creek. 

In the final survey, the drawings of watersheds were totally different from the first day – they contained glaciers, tributaries, streams, rivers, wetlands, storm drains, parking lots, and more. It was an honor to spend the week with these students and their teachers. We are looking forward to taking this program to many more schools. Thank you, Blaine!

Where does your drinking water come from?

posted Jun 5, 2017, 10:42 AM by RE Sources Education   [ updated Jun 5, 2017, 12:34 PM by Hannah Coughlin ]

By Lindsey Gard

Would you want to drink groundwater that has been contaminated by dog poop? Me neither. Knowing what can contaminate our water supply, and where our water comes from is important for all of us to know.

I am serving with Washington Service Corps at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities in Bellingham, WA. I am the Green Classroom Coordinator on the Sustainable Schools team. I go into K-5th grade classrooms and give workshops on water conservation, waste prevention, and energy efficiency. I am working to protect the environment by giving elementary-aged kids the information they need to care for our planet's resources. 

I recently did a special program with Blaine Elementary Schools’ 4th graders. We focused on water conservation/waste prevention with an emphasis on groundwater. This program was done in collaboration with Birch Bay Water and Sewer District and The City of Blaine. 

Most, if not all of Blaine’s residents get their drinking water from groundwater aquifers. Aquifers act as reservoirs for groundwater, and feed wells and springs.

When I went into each of these classrooms and asked them where their drinking water came from, hardly any students knew. Many guessed it came from the sink. When I asked how it got to the sink, most guessed it came straight from the ocean. 

If we don’t know where our drinking water is coming from, how will we know how to protect it?

During the workshop the students got to make their own edible aquifer. The goal was to show students the geographical layers in a groundwater aquifer, and how water — and pollution — moves through it. 

Each student was supplied with a clear cup, straw, spoon, teddy grahams, fruit snack gummies, soda water and ice cream. When we got to the point of “digging our well” (the straw) the kids pumped up the “groundwater” (soda water) and got to witness how “pollution” (food coloring) moved through the aquifer and what happened to the groundwater level when it is pumped out by a well. We talked about all the different ways groundwater can become polluted: dog poop and other animal waste, pesticides, car oil, gas and heavy metals, and landfill liquid waste called, leachate.

After this exercise, they got it. Students got a hands-on picture of how water makes it to their tap, and how easy it is for that water source to become polluted. 

The students also participated in a school-wide poster contest for their Green Classrooms Action Project. The posters were hung in the cafeteria and judged by local dignitaries. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winner all received an Alliance for Water Efficiency stainless steel water bottle, and the first place winner got a pizza party for their classroom! 
Many students committed to changing their behavior and committing to their ACT classroom pledge. ACT stands for Aware, Conserve, and Take Action. In that classroom, 95% of students had an increase in knowledge. This was just one of seven classrooms that completed the program.

My service in AmeriCorps at RE Sources has solidified my decision to continue working with youth in environmental education. Learning sustainability and how humans affect natural resources at a young age will only benefit our broader environment in the future.

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