CHESTERTOWN — Using wood duck boxes, rain barrels and rain gardens. Banning plastic straws.

These are ways to promote a healthy ecosystem, according to the findings of middle school students in Kent County who have just completed a year-long Watershed Watch program under the auspices of the Sultana Education Foundation.

Seventh- and eighth-graders from Radcliffe Creek School, Kent School and Kent County Middle School — nearly 200 students combined — participated in the program. They presented their action plans May 28 at Chestertown’s town hall and June 6 at the KCMS media center.

The students used Radcliffe Creek for their case study, learning how watersheds function, how humans affect the water quality and how to improve the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay region.

“It’s really a case study of what’s happening throughout the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, but really focusing on some of the issues that are more pertinent to those of us that live on the Eastern Shore in the northern Bay,” said Beth Lenker, science director of the Sultana Education Foundation. “We want the students to understand that this is something that affects them, this is part of their life, and they can make choices to help impact the world around them, which is why the student action projects are so important.”

The action projects required students to identify an issue that affects the health of Radcliffe Creek and then come up with a plan to address the issue, whether that be through direct intervention or educating others in the community on conservation.

For example, Kent School seventh-graders Tilghman Overton, Charlie Gessford, Mason Smucker and Mason Cole built two wood duck boxes — one for Gateway Park and the other for the Sultana Education Foundation’s marsh.

“I’m very impressed,” Joyce Huber, a member of the Sultana board, said of all the students’ presentations. “They really nailed it in a meaningful way.”

The primary watershed studied was Radcliffe Creek, a tributary of the Chester River that runs through the southern portion of Chestertown. The creek is a central location for all three schools involved, and its proximity makes it ideal for study, Lenker said.

“Location-wise, it’s really easy to get the students out on the creek to do scientific investigations,” she said.

According to the student field notebook the classes used to record their data, make observations and write down reflections, the goal of the program is to “measurably improve understanding of watershed-related issues in Kent County, and encourage students to participate in action projects that lead to improved water quality in Radcliffe Creek and the Chester River.”

Some of the activities were tested last year, but this is the first year the entire program has been implemented in schools.

It began as a “seed of an idea” that blossomed after Sultana received grant funding from the Veverka Family Foundation, whose founder and President M.J. Veverka serves on the Sultana board.

Over the summer, the Sultana Education Foundation collaborated with middle school science teachers in the county to create the curriculum and devise the student field notebook. Lenker, the principal author, worked with fellow Sultana staff member and Chesapeake Conservation Corps intern Jamie Mancini, Karen Carty and Katie Hughes of Kent County Middle School, Hannah Richardson of Kent School and Heidi Usilton of Radcliffe Creek School for three days to fully develop the material and try to connect it in ways that are valuable and relate to what they are already teaching.

The program contains nine modules, which mix classroom learning with hands-on experiences. Students begin by learning what a watershed is and learn how to map one online using wikiwatershed.org.

A simulation of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, made using a tarp and ping pong balls, is used to demonstrate how water moves throughout the Bay and its tributaries.

The second module introduces students to field sampling, where they learn how to perform tests to determine water quality and biodiversity. In the classroom, students first learn what the tests are and how they are performed and used so they can then apply that knowledge in the field.

The third module is a field trip to Gateway Park, where students perform water quality tests, survey the macroinvertebrates living in and around the creek and walk along the rail trail to survey land use and create maps of the area.

For the fourth module, students visit the Sultana’s Holt Education Center to study land use of the Radcliffe Creek and Bay watersheds from Colonial times to the present. The classroom has a map of the Bay on the floor, and projections are overlaid to animate the history of the Bay.

During this trip, students also dissect crayfish in Sultana’s wet lab.

In the fifth module, students conduct a research project on an organism living in the creek’s watershed and present their findings on their next field trip.

Then comes a canoe trip where students travel along lower Radcliffe Creek performing more water quality tests and educating their classmates on the wildlife they see along the way.

“Instead of having a teacher say, ‘This is an osprey,’ their class expert really becomes the teacher and tells the rest of the group what they’ve learned,” Lenker said.

Module seven starts to unpack all of the water quality data and other findings throughout the program. All three data sets from each school are collected and graphed in order to understand what it means for the health of the creek. Students assign a grade to the creek’s health, and compare their findings to those of local scientists.

“At the end of it, we open up the question of, ‘Do we care about this? Does this matter? If so, what can we do about it? How can we help?’ That leads into modules eight and nine,” Lenker said.

In the eighth and ninth modules, students begin planning and implementing their action projects.

The ninth module consists of the presentations, where the projects are shared with students and community members.

Sultana Education Foundation board members, the Kent County Board of Education, the grant funder and the local media were invited to view the presentations.

“We’re hoping that next year we’ll be able to get more community involvement for these presentations,” Lenker said.

Molly Depp, a seventh-grader at Kent County Middle School, made rain barrels for her action project. She decided on rain barrels after taking the canoe trip around Radcliffe Creek and finding all of the species that live there and conducting a water quality analysis at Gateway Park.

“We knew they would help collect runoff and help keep it from going in the Bay and keep the runoff from polluting,” she said.

Another group of Kent County Middle School students, Tyler Clark, Gillian Bonass, Dyllan Chatel and Jose Diaz-Vela, built several songbird boxes to put in the woods.

For their project, KCMS students Drew Davis, Lexi Harris and Lupe Duarte decided to teach a class of first-graders at Garnet Elementary School about Radcliffe Creek and its ecosystem. They said the young students don’t know about the local environment, so they wanted to share what they’d learned in simpler terms.

“We’re hoping they will want to help the creek when they get older,” Harris said.

KCMS students Rachel Mendoza, Averie Hitzges and Haylee Bohle decided to host a re-selling event, which will take place from noon to 1 p.m. July 13 in Wilmer Park.

The group went around neighborhoods to pick up items people were throwing away to resell them. They noticed that many of the items did not necessarily need to be thrown out and could be reused.

“A lot of people throw stuff away without even using it,” Hitzges said.

Kent School seventh-graders Parker Severs and Asher Bowman added 10 new plants to an existing rain garden. The new varieties included purple knockout, pale purple coneflower, mountain mint, beardtongue and black-eyed Susan.

The Radcliffe Creek team of Barron Scott, Nathan Pusey, Mariner Schut, Elii Taylor and Bridon Lucas sent a letter to Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino about their desire to put up a sign at Gateway Park to “teach people about Radcliffe Creek.”

“We also want to teach people about what lives in Radcliffe Creek. We want to tell people to not throw trash in Radcliffe Creek. We think this is going to help Radcliffe Creek water quality be better for animals and plants,” they wrote in their letter.

Lenker said that during the presentations it was interesting to see which parts of the program resonated most with students. They seemed to most enjoy the crayfish dissection, canoe trip and water quality testing at Gateway Park.

“It was impressive to see them really take ownership of their action projects. Empowering them, as an educator, it’s a very cool thing to see them take this project and do something with it,” Lenker said.

Right now, there is a lot of talk about expanding the program, but Lenker is focused on creating a “solid foundation” for the program.

“For next year, we’re really going to look at, how do we deepen the material? How do we build cross-curricular connections to what the seventh-grade students are doing in their other classes?” Lenker said.

Watching the presentations, guests were impressed with the students’ findings.

“They did a really nice job of using the scientific method framework,” Veverka said of the June 6 presentation. “It was very understandable, and getting them interested is just the beginning.”

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