This is the second post in our EE Week Guest Blogger Series. Read the previous entry, “Wondrous Wetlands,” by 4th grade teacher Tasha Kiemel of Sammamish, Washington, to learn more about how educators across the country are incorporating hands-on environmental field work into the curriculum.
Dave Wood teaches 8th grade Environmental Science at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, and he serves on the National Environmental Education Week (EE Week) Teachers Advisory Committee. EE Week promotes understanding and protection of the natural world by actively engaging K-12th grade students and educators in an inspired week of environmental learning before Earth Day. This year’s EE Week celebration occurs April 12-18, 2009, and the theme is Be Water Wise! To learn more or get involved, visit www.eeweek.org.
After teaching 8th grade environmental science at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. for over a decade, I came to realize that our students did not know some fundamental facts about the water upon which their lives depend. For them, water just magically came out of the tap, and it had to be clean and healthy because, evidently, no one was getting sick from drinking it. And, when my students dumped anything and everything down the drains or toilet, they assumed that, of course, the sewage treatment plant would take care of it all–because that’s why it was called a “treatment” plant. Where their drinking water came from, how it was treated, and what happened to it after it was flushed down the drain; they couldn’t say. And, I had to admit, neither could I.
It became clear that the provision and disposal of water was an
invisible process in our urban environment. It was also evident that,
if our students were going to understand the importance of keeping our
waterways clean and free of pollutants, they would have to see this
process revealed. And so, we organized our 8th graders into teams.
One team went to visit the water treatment plant. Another went to see
the sewage treatment plant. A third team traced the route taken by
storm water runoff exiting our campus. Each group of students took
pictures, prepared PowerPoint presentations, and reported their
findings to the entire school.
What did our students learn? They found that Washington, D.C. drinking
water comes from the Potomac River, which picks up every conceivable
substance as it flows by farmlands, sanitary landfills, factories, and
towns large and small that drain into the watershed. They saw how our
water treatment plant, Dalecarlia, which is operated by the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers, takes care of such contaminants as sediment,
nitrogen and phosphorus, and micro-organisms. And they also realized
that perhaps hundreds (if not thousands) of compounds such as factory
waste, pharmaceuticals, and caffeine are also present in the water–
many of them unknown and unidentified. Can we say for sure that the
water treatment plant is removing all of these? If not, do we know
that long-term exposure poses no health risks? It is disconcerting to
note, for example, that traces of birth control medications are being
found in the Potomac River, while alarming numbers of male bass in the
river are carrying eggs. Is it, therefore, a good idea to do our best
to keep these chemicals out of our water supply?
Our students also discovered that our sewage treatment plant, Blue
Plains, is a state-of-the art facility that provides tertiary treatment
of the city’s waste before dumping it back into the Potomac (unlike
most of the treatment plants upstream, which provide only primary and
secondary treatment). They saw that the facility is designed to treat
organic waste, but not hazardous substances, such as might be dumped
down the drain in my science lab. Is it important, then, to keep these
chemicals from arriving at the sewage treatment plant?
Additionally, students traced the path our runoff takes as it flows
into Rock Creek and, ultimately, the Potomac River. They saw trash,
oil, anti-freeze, salt, and dog droppings along the road en route to
the creek. They came to realize that most of these substances receive
no treatment at all, and that this is going on everywhere upstream–and
ending up in our drinking water supply. Is it smart, therefore, to
reduce runoff when we can?
In the end, the story of our water ceased being invisible, and the
reasons why we must keep our water clean became clear. We wish every
citizen could have the same experience in his or her own community
Many thanks to Dave for sharing his story. There’s more guest blogger goodness to come during EE Week–next week. So stay tuned!