By Sarah Hansen
“Is the net like a Spongebob jellyfish net?” student Cristal Sandoval asked. Alison Cawood, citizen science coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), used another analogy to explain: “It’s like a bowl with holes in it for pasta.” Light bulbs came on around the room and a knowing, “Oh,” escaped the lips of at least a dozen students.
A group of nearly 40 rising high school seniors from wards 7 and 8 in Southeast D.C. was gathered in a classroom at Bowie State University, a historically black university in Bowie, Md. Cawood was explaining the protocol for collecting macroinvertebrates, animals without backbones that can be seen with the naked eye such as worms, snails and insects. The students would carry out the protocol the following week in groups of five or six at different stream locations in Southeast, part of the Anacostia watershed.
Historically, sewage influx was a major problem in the Anacostia River. Industrial pollutants from the Washington Navy Yard also degraded its water quality. Not until the 1990s was restoring the Anacostia taken seriously, and since then there have been private, state and federal efforts to clean it up. The 176-square-mile watershed includes parts of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland and parts of Washington, D.C. The Anacostia River joins the Potomac in Southwest D.C.
The students’ stream monitoring project is a collaborative effort between the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum (ACM), Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and the United Planning Organization’s Youth Services Division program, “Providing Opportunities with Educational Readiness” (POWER), which provides college and career preparation for disadvantaged youth in Southeast D.C.
The ACM presented an exhibit titled “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement” in 2013, so when Kenny Carroll, POWER program coordinator, was looking for a relevant, STEM-focused summer project for his group, he turned to Tony Thomas, education coordinator at ACM. Carroll and Thomas worked through the summer of 2013 with a group of teens and developed a model program. Then Thomas pulled in Cawood in 2014. The result is a meld of community outreach, scientific data collection and environmental education.
“So many children don’t have a clue what the opportunities are that meet their natural skills and abilities,” Thomas said. Some also have very little experience in the outdoors. Thomas and Cawood address both holes in the students’ experiences by working with them three times a week over the summer, twice in the classroom and once in the field, on environmental issues.
Make no mistake, they’re doing genuine research. The students will enter their results into the database of the Maryland Biological Stream Survey Stream Waders Program, a long-term monitoring system that evaluates the biology and water quality of streams statewide. SERC’s collaboration with ACM and POWER joins other SERC citizen science efforts, including archaeological digs, banding and measuring trees, and working with invasive species. Citizen science gets everyday citizens doing real science by asking questions, running experiments, collecting data and analyzing findings. Citizen scientists are more than volunteers—they help further scientific knowledge. In Anacostia, SERC seeks to relate the students’ stream data to its other research programs on watersheds and fish spawning.
The stream monitoring studies will continue with a new cohort of students after this group graduates. And they all will graduate. One of POWER’s goals, explained Carroll, is to make sure these students graduate high school and enroll in some kind of postsecondary education. That some come from low-income households, have had run-ins with the law, or live or attend school in “east of the river” neighborhoods with high crime rates, won’t stop them. In the three and a half years Carroll has been with POWER, he said, “We’ve seen kids totally change their attitude.”
Shantelle Johnson, a participant in the program, described being part of a “bad group” before she got involved. Now she has great friends and plans to apply for a STEM scholarship to attend Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. Sandoval agreed that the program helps create positive relationships, saying, “It’s like we’re family.”
On their first day at the stream sites, the students marked off 75 meters of their stream. Those same sites will be used in coming years. They measured the heights of the banks and the widths of wooded buffer zones on both sides of the stream. They rated the stream’s litter level and conducted a battery of chemical tests to determine pH, dissolved oxygen and phosphate levels. The vast majority of the kids were cooperative and cheerful. They’re glad to be part of this. And even if the data aren’t perfect, equating science with having fun is already an accomplishment.
Thomas and Cawood are pioneering this program in D.C., but Thomas hopes to scale it up. He said there are groups in cities around the world that are “chomping at the bit” to collaborate with the Smithsonian on citizen science projects centered on urban waterways. Although he has other duties at the Anacostia museum, “I would like this to be my main responsibility.”
There are plenty of kinks to work out, but the POWER/SERC partnership is off to a running start. This fall, Thomas and Cawood will begin watershed work with a new cohort of POWER sixth-graders. If all goes as planned the duo will stick with them through 12th grade.
But the issues the Anacostia watershed faces won’t go away in that timeframe. By monitoring tributaries of the Anacostia River, these students will be more aware of local water quality. And just as POWER is changing the trajectories of their lives, what they learn about the watershed may inspire them to improve their environment.