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Help Kids 'Give Water a Hand'


Resources for hands-on water-related environmental education! Every teacher knows how much students love to get their hands dirty -- but how about wet? Finding pristine waters in the United States is becoming more difficult, but two organizations are helping teachers bring the plight of national waterways into the classroom. Give Water a Hand and River Watch Network offer support and information for organizing projects that offer meaningful learning experiences for students.

In 1992, the cooperative extension service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) completed a national assessment of water curricula and other education resources. "[The assessment] identified more than 1,000 youth water-education publications and extensively reviewed about 70 water curricula," project coordinator Molly Thompson told Education World. "As a result, the team recognized four needs -- a need for a collaborative approach to water-related environmental education, a need to help youth to act, a need to make environmental issues immediately relevant for youth, and a need to nurture in youth the skills of environmental stewardship."

A student and a representative from the Hennepin Conservation District stake cedar trees into a stream bank to protect it from further erosion.

The answer to those needs became a program called Give Water a Hand (GWAH). Thompson joined the staff as a national outreach manager for extension water education and stewardship programs. As project coordinator, she maintains the program's Web site, answers questions by e-mail, distributes materials, and produces a newsletter from her office at the UWEX Environmental Resources Center in Madison, Wisconsin.


"In a follow-up study, the USDA found that the best water-related youth service projects paired youth groups with local water experts, such as extension agents, waste water treatment plant operators, naturalists, directors of environmental organizations, and local soil and water conservation district staff," Thompson continued. "Working with youth group leaders, these experienced professionals help identify and organize projects and can help find resources."

Thompson believes that the strength of GWAH is that it offers a process to help young people research needs in their communities and develop water-related environmental service projects to meet those needs. The program targets kids from nine to 14, and free curriculum materials are available on its Web site. Give Water a Hand encourages users to download materials at no expense. Interested teachers may also call 1-800-WATER-20. GWAH charges a fee for materials ordered through the office.

Because of the availability of the material on the Web site and the difficulty in tracking this information, Thompson does not have current information about the number of people who use the program. "We have had many requests to include GWAH activities in other water-education curricula, and we know it is common for people to use parts of the guides successfully," she said. "Since 1994, at least 100,000 copies of the action guide have been requested by water educators. People have accessed the Web site more than 33,000 times to date. Since we added an electronic registration form, more than 2,000 educators have downloaded the action guide."


Few people know the curriculum of Give Water a Hand better than Rich and Susan Cairn, co-partners of Cairn & Associates, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Because of their background in service learning, they were asked to create the materials.

"What I like about water issues is that students can do something right now, in their communities, to make the environment better," Rich Cairn explained. "Global warming, ozone depletion, extinction -- those issues are so huge that students can't see any results from their individual work. In Minnesota, people really care about fresh water, so it is easy to get them to take action if they know what they can do."

Cairn & Associates has a contract with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District to organize water-quality related service-learning projects involving schools. The firm also works with the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council and other state and local agencies. The group's major school partner is the Minnesota Community Education Association.

"We organized a program called the Watershed Resources Youth Stewardship Project to aid teachers to get students out into the community doing water quality projects," said Cairn. "Common projects include storm drain stenciling, erosion-control plantings along the banks of Minnehaha Creek, public presentations at shopping malls and school fairs, and water-quality monitoring at various levels, including monitoring lakes, streams, and wetlands."

Cairn & Associates doesn't always get to see the results of the activities the firm develops, but Cairn is aware of several examples of positive effects of student involvement. The Minnehaha Creek watershed is large -- 281 square miles and 300,000 people -- but the work of students has had some impact. In some cases, erosion has been halted and many people have been educated about water resource issues.


Give Water a Hand provides free curriculum materials to educators online. The aim of another organization, River Network, is connecting teachers and community leaders to help kids get involved in water-related projects.

"There are many benefits to water-resource projects," said Sharon Behar of River Watch Network. "One specific example is that they increase student interest in the sciences. Another is that these projects give students a way to make a difference in their communities. These activities motivate students and keep them engaged and involved. They see the results of their work. We often want students to become active participants in the community, but we rarely show them a way to do this."

"The National River Watch Program is one part of the River Watch Network," Behar stated. "It works with communities and schools to set up water-quality monitoring projects. My role is to advise individuals, school districts, or community groups who are interested in establishing such projects in their areas. One key of successful projects is community support for these educational efforts."

The group provides two books that are ideal resource materials for educators who want to set up water quality projects. These are Living Waters and Testing the Waters, Behar has found that educators appreciate the explanation of the concepts of water-quality testing that these resources provide. The books not only include activities but also go beyond the hands-on instruction to describe the scientific applications behind the experiments. Users can modify some activities for elementary students, but most are designed for middle and high school students. For more information about the publications, look on the River Watch Network Web site.

In a recent project associated with the River Watch Network, high school students discovered pollution in the Mill River, in Massachusetts. A routine sampling of the water revealed high levels of bacteria coming from a storm drain. Students worked with the superintendent of the department of public works, and a broken sewer line was found. A press conference was held with all involved, and the community expressed its thanks. Sewage from the leak had reached a pond in which citizens often fished and waded. Although all pollution is unwanted, the work of the students helped avoid a more serious situation.


David Astin, who teaches biology at Wayzata Senior High School in Plymouth, Minnesota, has been working with the River Watch Network for three years. "The assets of the River Watch Network are partnership with schools, support with materials, expertise, and help with providing opportunities for service learning," he said.

"I began teaching biology and environmental biology in Golden Valley, Minnesota, and worked with water-quality projects with those students in the early 1970s," Astin elaborated. "Three years ago, I wrote a new course called Wildlife Biology for Wayzata. At that time, I started to receive information from the Hennepin Conservation District (HCD) about a macroinvertebrate project. I received some great training and support in the form of supplies, expertise, and training."

Astin has worked with the macroinvertebrate project for several years. His school collaborated with the HCD, the city of Plymouth, another school district, and a private landowner to plan and implement a biotech stream bank improvement. The group changed the slope of the bank; protected the toe of the stream bank, which is the point of the bank where the waterline meets the bank; and planted buffer plants. They also installed rip rap and check dams, which slow water as it moves down a channeled slope or gully, helping prevent further erosion.

"Water-resource projects offer applications of concepts that we introduce in the classroom -- looking at the watershed students live in, what a watershed is, why it is important, and how watershed health is translated into good or bad in the Gulf of Mexico," stated Astin. "It's one thing to introduce students to the concepts, but it fits with learning research to bring them ownership of the concept by actively working on the application. Once they can see the difference, they own the concept and value their knowledge. Working on a water project is an action that creates awareness, helps to create knowledge, and encourages students to learn new and useful skills."

Astin feels that water-resource projects benefit both teachers and students. Teachers are able to work with scientists and career environmental staff to learn techniques and pass those skills on to students. Perhaps the greatest advantage of such activities is the characteristic empowerment of the learners.

"Students feel that the work that they are doing is relevant, and when the work is published, it gives them a sense of accomplishment," observed Astin. "Projects of this kind give students a chance to interact with people working in the field and give them a chance to hear about the educational and career pathways that lead to careers in this area. Students see that different levels of education and training are required for different positions, and students realize that there are many different tools and techniques that can be applied to study in this domain."


USGS Water Resources Education Initiative
Teachers can order water-education posters and teacher-resource notebooks from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water: Kids' Stuff Experiments
Games, activities, and kids' art are among the materials you will find at this watery Web site.

Global Water Sampling Project
Students around the globe team up to test fresh water.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2008Education World

Find more Earth Day lessons, projects, and resources in Education World's Earth Day Archive.

Originally published 04/17/2000
Links last updated 03/28/2008