Harrisburg High School students explore stream life and water quality with Penn State Extension
The adventure in Harrisburg High School began with an assembly in the school’s auditorium where 224 9th graders learned all about the many potential causes of poor water quality, in Harrisburg and throughout Pennsylvania. The various ways we use the land; such as lawns, parking lots, constructions sites, farms, and industrial sites, each contribute to pollution ending up in our waterways.
Over the next few weeks, these 9th graders then got hands-on in the laboratory, where they explored the different criteria that can be used to test water quality. Physical, chemical, and biological criteria are all used to create a complete picture of water health. Can sunlight pass through the water? Is the pH appropriate? Are there living things in the water that would not survive in pollution? On an unseasonably hot spring day, the students also toughed it out on a walk around their school neighborhood. They were looking for potential sources of pollution that might end up in the nearby stream. Everyone agreed that the biggest issues around their school seemed to be litter, leaking oil from parked cars and buses, and areas where bare soil was eroding away in the rain.
The finale for this experience was a walking field trip to the nearby Spring Creek West tributary stream. Rain and melting snow at Harrisburg High School rolls downhill to two different streams, Paxton Creek and Spring Creek West, that both eventually drain to the Susquehanna River. Excited students pulled on hip-wader boots and used their new lab skills in the field to test the water quality. Using the tools of the trade they measured the water’s transparency, analyzed the presence of the nutrients nitrate and phosphate in the water, and recorded the variety of insects and other small critters living in the stream. On that day, the water didn’t show too many signs of pollution. However the limited amount of living things in the water told the students that over a period of time in the past, the water was not consistently healthy.
As a result of the program, 81% of the students (who participated in a survey, n=149) said they felt they learned something during the experience. They were able to prove what they learned, as 77% of the students were able to answer a significant number of quiz questions about water quality.
Students in Harrisburg School District’s class of 2020 began working with Penn State Extension to explore water in their community in 2015. They will continue, as part of their Gear-Up program, to use water as a learning experience each year until they graduate. The program is led each year by Penn State Extension’s Watershed/Youth Development Educator, Jennifer Fetter. Fetter utilizes Extension’s research-based materials and award-winning 4-H curriculum with the students. The goal is to help the students consider potential careers and post-high school education in a variety of fields, while also learning about something that will matter to them and their community no matter what path they choose after high school. The program is certainly making an impact. At the end of this year, 80% of the students said they will make an effort to keep Harrisburg’s water clean.