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May 01, 2012

Students protect local watersheds through Project GREEN


By ANN RICHARDS

  • More than 1,200 students from two Michigan counties field test water quality
  • Out-of-school time program emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)
  • Service learning a key component of GREEN program

Video By DUANE M. ELLING
Picking through a pan of cold, wet river debris in search of leeches, water fleas and threadworms might not excite every student. But for Don Hammond’s environmental science class at Beecher High School, near Flint, Michigan, the chance to be directly involved in a water quality monitoring experience that helps to improve the condition of their community’s watershed is an event to look forward to.

Each April for the past three years, Hammond’s junior and senior high school students have returned to a site on Brent Run, a medium-size creek that feeds into the Flint River, to conduct water quality tests as part of the Flint River GREEN (Global Rivers Environmental Education Network) program.

“The results of every test the students run today will go into a countywide data base for use by the Genesee County Drain Commission, Project GREEN and the Flint River Watershed Coalition (FRWC),” said Hammond, one of 57 teachers in Michigan’s Genesee, Lapeer and Oakland counties who take part in the event.

“More than 1,200 students spend a day conducting nine different tests at the sampling sites,” said Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the FRWC, the Mott Foundation grantee that administers the program.

The data collected gives a snapshot of the health of the river. As more information is added each year, comparisons can be made about the quality of the water running through the watershed over time.

“The students always expect to find gross stuff in the river and streams,” Fedewa said. “And every year, we see their opinions change. It’s rewarding to see how the experience has a positive impact on their ideas about making a difference in their community.”

GREEN was developed in 1984 by University of Michigan professor William Stapp and Mark Mitchell, his academic assistant, in response to the concerns of a group of students at a high school located along the polluted Huron River in Ann Arbor. In collaboration with Earth Force, a Denver-based nonprofit youth organization, GREEN has developed a nationally recognized curricula, training and resource base for teachers implementing the program, which now operates in 20 states and engages more than 100,000 students each year. Flint River GREEN is one of the largest of these programs.

GREEN pairs each participating classroom with a volunteer mentor with a background in science, engineering or chemistry. In addition to providing technical support for the classroom teacher, the mentor visits the class prior to testing day to get to know the students, walk them through the field testing and help them understand how a science background can lead to a variety of interesting career options.

“We’re fortunate to have really great mentors for our program,” said Fedewa. “They work for General Motors and the county drain commission — which both provide financial support — the city of Flint’s Water Pollution Control Division, local universities and the local county extension office. They give a lot of their time to make this an interesting experience for the kids.”

Post-testing, mentors return to the class to discuss the results and how the data stacks up to the previous year. If the site’s score is significantly different from the previous year, mentors help students develop a theory as to why this may have occurred.

Mentors also accompany their class to an annual summit in May, where students present the results of their testing on the campus of one of Flint’s colleges or universities.

For Don Hammond, who received a national Green Teacher award for his contributions to GREEN’s Watershed STEM Initiative, the summit — like the testing day on Brent Run — offers an alternative, academically stimulating way of teaching.

“This type of activity makes my students excited about learning. It makes me a more effective teacher. And best of all, it helps build communication and respect — a positive relationship — between me and my students.”