Kathryn Durkee’s eighth graders at the Community Public Charter School got out of the classroom last Wednesday, and spent the morning splashing around the Rivanna River. The students were wrapping up a nine-week-long project, during which they collaborated with Youth-Nex, UVA’s Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center, and other local conservation organizations to restore buffers along the river and develop a better understanding of stream health.
“The goal was to get them really engaged in the topic,” Durkee said. “They identified a problem, found a solution, and saw it through to the end.”
Durkee’s students began researching local environmental issues earlier this year, and decided to focus their attention on restoring health to waterways like the Rivanna. After reading up on issues like sedimentation and foreign plants, they planned a hands-on project that involved planting native plants along the shore in Darden Towe Park.
“They were all able to find a part to engage in,” Durkee said. “Some may have been more interested in the horticulture and planting aspect, while others really liked the computer research or water testing.”
At last week’s event, the students guided guests along the river and through the park, pointing out their recently planted spice bushes and elderberry plants, and explaining how the presence of macroinvertebrates can indicate the health of a waterway. Parents, teachers, and graduate students watched as about a dozen kids tossed their shoes aside and sloshed through the river, equipped with butterfly nets, pH testing strips, and turbidity meters.
“The water’s really clear today,” student Emma Freeauf said as she examined a small plastic aquarium holding two crayfish caught by classmates. “Sediment is the biggest problem here—it was really cloudy the last time we were here and we couldn’t see anything.”
The project was funded by Youth-Nex, which awards money each year to teams of UVA researchers to collaborate with other schools and groups on projects that promote healthy and well-rounded kids. UVA faculty Eileen Merritt and Sara Rimm-Kaufman led a team of graduate students from several different disciplines—including psychology and environmental science—through the project, getting their hands dirty alongside the middle schoolers.
With the river study wrapping up, Durkee said she is already collaborating with the Rivanna Garden Club to plan the next long-term, hands-on outdoor assignment for her science classes.
“A bad day outside is always better than a good day in the classroom,” Durkee said.
Community Public Charter School eighth graders spent last Wednesday morning in the sun, sharing the findings of their nine-week river study project with parents and friends.