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STEM in Action, Part 2: Students Use Science and Service-Learning to Save the Wetlands

by Scott Richardson and Marilyn Weyer

This is part two of a two-part exploration of the connection between science, civic action, and service-learning from Learn and Serve America and the Virginia Department of Education.

Last week in these pages, we introduced the citizen-scientist movement. But what actually goes on in a school where students use the skills they learn in school to solve local problems? At a small Appalachian high school, students use service-learning to become active and informed citizen-scientists.

St. Paul High School is a Learn and Serve America grantee in rural Wise County in southwestern Virginia. Fully one-fourth of St. Paul students are hard at work preserving the Estonoa Wetlands that spread along their campus perimeter. Estonoa acts as a buffer zone for the Clinch River, St. Paul’s water source and a key recreational resource for the county.

Through their science classes, St. Paul students routinely take measurements of the insect life and chemistry in the water, using established protocols to analyze the ecosystem. Measuring water quality not only gives the students clues about the health of the wetlands – it shows them an immediate use for what they learn in the classroom. The students then discuss threats to the wetlands, develop a hypothesis about how these problems emerged, and discuss what they can do to improve water quality and preserve the ecosystem.

Threats to the wetlands evolve as monitoring continues, so students’ projects have varied over the years. A project may involve either direct action, such as planting trees to stanch erosion, or indirect action, such as community education about how everyday habits affect wetlands health.

All Estonoa projects involve close collaboration with community partners. Over the years, the students have worked cooperatively with the local government and various state and federal agencies, including USDA, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Their sustainability efforts paid off – literally – when they raised $250,000 from these sources to build the Wetlands Estonoa Learning Center.

At the Center, students host workshops to educate the community, teaching people how to monitor a water body, care for lawns in a wetlands-friendly manner, and slow runoff using rain barrels and green roofs. Through their close partnership with the St. Paul Town Council, students also conduct public hearings and prepare budgets for the Center.

St. Paul teachers and community partners remark that students now see the physical landscape differently, noticing for example where failing slopes are creating erosion and increased runoff into local water bodies. Students also see the civic landscape differently. They have discovered that community leaders are approachable, and they know from experience how to use science as a key part of the process of solving community problems. In the words of Team Estonoa member Virginia Burton, “This project has taught me the most valuable lesson of all: never to limit myself. With the guidance of our mentor, Mrs. Terry Vencil, and our many partners, we, a group of high school students, have truly made a difference in the world around us.”

Scott Richardson is the Program Coordinator for K-12 Initiatives at Learn and Serve America. Marilyn Weyer is the Mathematics and Science Grants Specialist at the Virginia Department of Education.

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