Local waterways serve as science ‘classrooms’

Local waterways serve as science ‘classrooms’

(Calif.) Solano County’s creeks and waterways – the 116,000-acre Suisun Marsh included – have become outdoor classrooms for teaching local students the importance of a healthy watershed and the impacts their own actions can have on these life-sustaining resources.

Along the way, the third-, sixth- and 12th-grade participants practice critical scientific thinking and experimentation that is expected of all California students under new, more rigorous national education standards.

“We have them transform into student scientists where they get to be botanists, soil scientists and hydrologists,” said Marianne Butler, who manages the education programs sponsored by the Solano Resource Conservation District and funded with state and community contributions.

The district’s three separate programs, which build upon one another as they progress from elementary to middle to high school, are aligned not only to Common Core English and math standards, Butler said, but to the Next Generation Science Standards that the state is currently in the process of implementing.

Created by the National Research Council, the NGSS are internationally benchmarked standards based on three dimensions: Core ideas, which consist of specific content and subject areas; science and engineering practices, where students are expected not just to learn content but to understand the methods of scientists and engineers, and finally, cross-cutting concepts – key underlying ideas that are common to a number of topics.

The RCD watershed education program will involve 6,000 Solano County students this year, up from 600 to 800 at its inception nearly 10 years ago.

Starting this month and continuing through May, some 2,200 third graders will take part in the Watershed Explorers Program where groups of students hike through local parks or dedicated open spaces to learn what a watershed is, where water comes from; where it goes, and how living creatures impact the watershed – from littering and oil disposal to animal waste. They are taught about native and non-native plants and species, as well.

“Our whole goal is just for them to become stewards of the watershed and really want to take ownership of the great natural resources we have in the country,” said Butler.

In the fall, sixth-grade students from every city in the county, from Dixon to Benicia and Vallejo to Rio Vista, participate in the Suisun Marsh Watershed and Wetland education program, sponsored by the Solano County Water Agency and Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District.

RCD staff first lead three in-class sessions focusing on the characteristics of a watershed, the effects of storm water pollution on creeks, marsh and ocean. Students study the geography of Solano County and the Suisun Marsh using various types of maps. They, too, learn about the many native and non-native plants and animals residing in the marshlands, which serve as the resting and feeding ground for tens of thousands of wintering and migrating waterfowl and provide habitat for more than 221 species of birds.

The Suisun Marsh, the largest, contiguous brackish marsh remaining on the west coast of North America, supports more than 40 species of fish and 80 percent of the state's commercial salmon fishery by providing key rearing areas for juvenile fish. The marsh is also home to the endemic Tule elk, and the federally-endangered salt marsh harvest mouse.

Students then take an all-day field trip to the Rush Ranch Nature Center, located near the city of Suisun, where they rotate through three hands-on learning stations covering the marsh's soil, water and plants. After lunch, students take a nature hike through the Rush Ranch property, during which they sit atop a bluff overlooking the marshlands and write poetry about their field trip experience.

“The kids were really engaged,” said Bruce Vieira, a sixth grade math and science teacher at Rio Vista’s Riverview Middle School, who participated for the first time last fall in the Suisun Marsh program.

“A lot of them had never been exposed to what a watershed was,” he said in an interview. “They get to actually go out and do some field experiments, like testing water temperature and understanding why temperature is important. They were excited about being able to leave the classroom, and it didn’t take them long to figure out they were actually learning some stuff – that it wasn’t just a get-out-of-class day.”

Back in the classroom, a fourth in-class lesson teaches students about marine debris and their role in its creation and management. Participating teachers also have the option of taking their students on a tour of the North Bay Regional Water Treatment Plant to further strengthen student understanding of the connection between source water and their household water taps.

In 2015, in response to California's prolonged drought, the program increased its focus on water conservation, teaching students reasons and strategies for reducing water consumption in their homes and at school.

For high schoolers – juniors and seniors – the Vallejo Sanitation and Flood Control District and Solano County Office of Education contract Solano RCD to manage and implement their bio-monitoring program, a comprehensive urban runoff education program that includes eight in-class lessons, a half-day creek restoration project and an all-day bio-assessment activity in May.

Lessons focus on stream ecology, storm water and watersheds, topographic mapping, macro-invertebrate identification and chemical water testing. During the restoration-focused trip students remove invasive plants and plant native vegetation.

On the all-day outing, the students monitor the health of a local creek using the California Streamside Biosurvey, which employs the use of non-lethal techniques for assessing invertebrate populations and evaluating water quality. This program builds on both the Watershed Explorers Program and Suisun Marsh Watershed and Wetland Education Program, but also stands alone, said Butler.

In an effort to spread watershed education even further, the Solano RCD is now coordinating the School Water Education Program, a free program that partners with teachers throughout Solano County to provide K-12 students with information about water awareness and conservation.

The program includes the use of online curriculum and materials, and is offering an upcoming professional development session free to all Solano County teachers and college students designed to train educators on how to include water awareness and conservation in their classrooms.

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