Wetsel Middle School students examine the river at Graves Mountain Lodge for debris.

Last month, Wetsel Middle School students took to the river to find out how local practices impact the larger watershed.

The visit to Graves Mountain Lodge and the Rose River was the field component of the multi-day project. Prior to going off school grounds, the students spent several days in the classroom learning how to develop investigative questions applying the scientific method to learn how to assess their schoolyard impacts on the environment as well as developing opportunities for improvement. The investigative question was “Does our schoolyard impact the Chesapeake Bay?”

According to Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation (CSWCD) District Education/Information Coordinator Stephanie DeNicola, students were testing the assumptions made by the Chesapeake Bay Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. Those assumptions are based on models developed using data from larger areas that is then calculated and applied for smaller areas.

The project is funded by a Bay Watershed Education and Training Grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). DeNicola said the CSWCD first applied for the grant as a way to practice grant writing, but was ultimately, and thankfully, chosen. She said the $250,000 three-year grant allows CSWCD to develop and deliver Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences (MWEEs) for all sixth grade students in the district’s five counties and also provide professional development programs for instructors. It not only allows the students to have hands-on learning about watersheds and ecology, but also gives teachers classroom instruction and offers college students the chance to get in the classroom and engage with students. At the end of the project, the sixth-graders also write newspaper articles and submit them to local papers. Through all of the various elements, the overall project combines English, math and art since students develop their own watershed models.

“We felt our member counties were an ideal focus for this grant,” DeNicola said. “In addition to Madison County, Culpeper SWCD includes Culpeper, Greene, Orange and Rappahannock counties. The central office staff in each county have always encouraged their teachers to participate in professional development and classroom programs of the district and were extremely enthusiastic to partner on this grant. We chose to launch in Madison because the small, collaborative environment allowed us to work through our ideas.”

The project launched in Madison in 2018 and is held each spring and fall to enable students enrolled in each semester the opportunity to participate. It recently also started in Greene and Rappahannock and will expand to Prospect Heights Middle School beginning in the spring with Locust Grove Middle School added next fall.

“The students seem to like it and the teachers learn a lot, too,” DeNicola said.

Kerri Gentius said she learned a lot as well. Gentius, a student at Piedmont Virginia Community College, was chosen to lead the classroom instruction for the fall semester project at Wetsel. She said her professor recommended her for the program.

“I love it,” she said. “Every time I try to get away from ecology, it brings me back.”

Gentius said the students were very knowledgeable about their local area and since many live on farms, hopes they’ll go back and tell their parents what they’ve learned and how they can make small changes to have a greater impact to protect watersheds.

“We’re all connected,” she said.

Wetsel Middle School Sixth Grade Teacher Brynn Welch said the hands-on project is fabulous.

“It’s good to hear from people in the field,” she said. “It hits differently [than when just in the classroom].”

She said it also pairs with the watershed unit and allows students to learn the vocabulary, parts of the watershed, maps and conservation. Students also learn about erosion, the impact farms may have and rain gardens.

“Anytime they can get out of their desks and outside, it’s helpful,” she said. “Kids belong outside when it comes to this stuff.”

Local extension agents, representatives from the Department of Agriculture and Department of Forestry and the Old Rag Master Naturalists assist with the project. They lead groups during the field component day at Graves Mountain.

“If we can teach kids about the river and how it connects to the Chesapeake Bay like crabs and fishing, they can use what they’ve learned to help convince others,” Old Rag Master Naturalist Bruce Bowman said. “Small adjustments equal actions.”

The CSWCD has been acknowledged as the first soil and water conservation district on the East Coast to be selected for this grant. With it now in its final year, DeNicola said she plans to reapply.

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