Both Minnesota’s state and students are gaining from a unique partnership I learned about – on a recent trip to New Mexico. I had expected to learn about outstanding New Mexico schools. But I was surprised and delighted when Dan Shaw, co-director of New Mexico’s Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program, didn’t just tell me about their great water quality monitoring program. He also introduced me to a Minnesota project that would welcome more students.

Let’s start with the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program, or BEMP, in New Mexico. Since 1997, students at New Mexico schools have been working with the University of New Mexico to help monitor the water quality of the Rio Grande River and its surrounding forest (“Bosque” in Spanish). The program has grown from three to about 60 schools, and 10,000 students. Shaw explained that “natural resource managers from 14 different federal, tribal, state, and local agencies depend upon student gathered BEMP data to inform their (multimillion-dollar) decision making about the river.” (More information at www.bemp.org.)

Rafe Martinez, a parent and founder of the American Sign Language Academy in Albuquerque, told me that “water is critical in New Mexico. Our students really enjoy, and learn from, opportunities to study and share what’s happening to the Rio Grande and surrounding area.”

Educators in Minnesota shared a similar enthusiasm for another water quality monitoring project that Shaw introduced me to: the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizen Water Monitoring Programs. Laurie Sovell, citizen stream monitoring specialist for the MPCA, responded immediately when I contacted her. She listed several participating schools, including St. Maximilian Kolbe School students in Delano, Minnesota. Mary Ziebell, the school’s principal, wrote: “We are very happy to be able to partner with the MN Pollution Control Agency. Our fifth- grade students do a weekly water check of the Crow River in Delano. There are so many reasons why this is of great value to our students.” Among them: 

— “Students feel like they, as kids, can help out and make a difference in a very important area. “— “It has given them a better understanding of our environment and the impact different things have on our water and nature. This also helps the students to use actual data, and scientifically do research in a real world situation. It has spurred great conversation and good questions from the students.”

— “It is also exposing the students to a career, or area of study, that they may not have otherwise thought about. “

Jason Benjamin, a fifth-grade teacher at Burroughs Community School in Minneapolis, told me that collaborating with the MPCA to monitor Minnehaha Creek water produces “authentic learning connections to science/math/our world.” It also “confirms values of being stewards of the earth.” Benjamin concluded: “It is so wonderful to see students earnestly give up some of their recess time to help the greater community. You can see the pride they take in knowing that they did something to help ‘someone’ else!”

Sovell of the MPCA would gladly talk with other schools and youth organizations about monitoring water quality in lakes or rivers. More information is available here: https://www.pca.state.mn.us/water/citizen-water-monitoring. Her email is laurie.sovell@state.mn.us

Monitoring is done April to September, so educators need to find ways to continue monitoring during the summer, perhaps by working with families. 

Shaw cited recent research documenting “the need for high-quality, long-term environmental datasets; equally or more so the need for a scientifically literate public.” The BEMP and MPCA programs, with student involvement, help reach both of these important goals.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

 

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