Teaching STEM streamside and in the Classroom

June 7, 2018

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.
By Andrea Reiter