|By Diane Langmuir, Former Middle School Science Teacher|
The first semester of the 7th grade focuses on the importance of water, an essential element for life, and specifically the ecology of the Hudson River. Understanding water systems and how to preserve them might very well be one of the most important issues for our 7th graders in their lifetimes. The days of seemingly abundant supplies of clean water are ending. Discussions of sustainability must necessarily include conversations about water.
Students first learn to become aware of their household water usage and how they can develop better conservation habits. Students learn about properties of water, the water cycle, and what a watershed is. Then they focus on the Hudson River, one of the most important rivers in U.S. history and a wonderful resource that we can access because it is close by. To understand the river, students study aspects of the organisms that live in the river, food webs, rocks in and around the river, land use affecting the watershed, and the human history affecting the river. Human settlement and livelihoods affect the river and the river affects our lives. A repeated theme throughout the course is that “Everything is connected.”
Students learn that the river is complex—ever changing with weather, seasons, tides, and human impact. The Hudson provides us with a laboratory to study biology and ecology, and to understand how living and non-living factors interact. Students go to the Hudson and measure water temperature, dissolved oxygen, tide level and direction, turbidity, and salinity. Donning waders, they use nets in order to see what they might catch. These are some of the same tests scientists to analyze how the river works. Students often comment that they feel like “real” scientists.
Many students initially have the misconception that the river is dirty. Indeed, once it was overwhelmed by sewage and industrial waste. They learn about the Hudson’s remarkable recovery and success story due to the efforts of many people’s hard work and the passage of the Clean Water Act. At the beginning of the semester, they take a cruise on the Clearwater (run by the organization of the same name started by Pete Seeger). This is a teaching vessel modeled on a sloop. Helping to hoist the sail, and then rotating through various stations on board, students learn about many aspects about the river. For example, the crew teaches them that the water is not clear because it is alive with algae that form the important basis of the river’s food chain. Pollution controls are now in place to improve water quality.
Students study how we humans impact the river through development and technology. They learn how we can solve our needs for development and livelihoods in ways that have less negative impacts on the watershed and the river system. They learn about the PCB problem and the efforts made in order to remedy that problem. They learn how bald eagles are coming back and many fish species populations are being restored after the DDT ban. They understand the importance of preserving the wetlands because they are the nurseries and breeding grounds for many species that are needed to sustain a healthy biodiversity.
The goal is for students to take away an appreciation for nature and become more aware of how they are part of life on Earth and can be thoughtful and responsible stewards. They will learn more about how a water system works and become engaged and thoughtful as citizens, understanding that we face challenges. They can think about how we can manage to reduce negative impacts on the environment, and maybe even help solve some of those challenges. They will also learn how science works—by making observations, questioning, gathering data, and analyzing what the data shows.
As a teacher who worked every day with children to understand the complexity of sustainability, I feel that human action is at the center of solving our environmental issues such as the availability of clean water. Students need to feel hopeful and confident about their futures. They need to feel empowered to take action. If students learn about the science of environmental issues and have hands-on experiences engaging them in that study, they will have the background knowledge and awareness to be interested to stay informed. They will also be more likely to develop and model habits that correspond to good environmental stewardship. This could be actions like turning the water off while brushing their teeth, noticing a dripping faucet and trying to do something to get it fixed, encouraging the use of nighttime sprinkler systems to cut down on evaporation, or even installing more efficient toilets in their homes. Some might even go on to become the innovators, organizers and future problem solvers. In any case, they are all future citizens and who need to be informed to make intelligent choices as to how they live, and the policies and practices they will support.