Chesapeake Bay Foundation educators Tom Parke and Emily Thorpe took advantage of an unseasonably warm winter day in Pennsylvania, to wash life vests, check canoes for needed repairs, and reflect on the Susquehanna Watershed Environmental Education Program's (SWEEP) 26th year of connecting students with their local waterways.
SWEEP guides students in grades 6 to 12, college level groups, and teachers through a series of water quality experiences designed to reinforce in-class lessons and emphasize the importance of clean water.
Parke, Thorpe, and their fleet of ten canoes floated over 1,700 students across waters in Pennsylvania's portion of the Bay watershed during the spring and fall seasons in 2016. During the summer months, they hosted about 75 teachers at workshops and courses.
Since it began, SWEEP has conducted over 2,000 programs and involved about 45,000 participants in its spring and fall Environmental Education Days.
Thorpe says SWEEP's core purpose is to, "connect kids and people in general with their local rivers and streams, emphasize the importance that it has in their daily lives. It's this sometimes invisible system that we all rely on. The importance of watersheds is one of the big things they learn," she adds. "Everyone has an impact on that watershed and is affected by its health."
"We get out to a wide geography. Our goal is to connect people to their local rivers and streams and the mission of the organization to 'Save the Bay,'" Parke says. He has been with CBF for eight years. "That isn't going to happen unless you work throughout the entire watershed. You can't have a clean Bay without clean local streams."
Students enjoy the opportunity to paddle a canoe and investigate the health of local waterways through a variety of hands-on activities like up-close studies of the bugs and other species living in the water. They study the physical characteristics of the waterway, the shoreline, and adjoining lands. They use water chemistry tests to determine quality and use maps to orient themselves with their specific watershed.
Because of changing conditions, flexibility is important, even with a set curriculum. Low water levels across the Commonwealth contributed to the SWEEP lesson plans in 2016.
"The drought really made for a different canoe experience, sometimes not in good ways with having to get out and drag boats over rocks and things," Thorpe says. She will be with CBF for two-and-a-half years in the spring. "Sometimes it was cool and interesting that the river stayed really clear. Kids could see into the grass beds and see fish swimming all around in the river."
The outdoor learning environment brings out a different side of the students. "Students who are more problematic in the classroom, that may have difficulties keeping it all together in the classroom, are on task the entire time when they are outside, and teachers are always surprised by that," Thorpe says. "The students want to be outside or be more physically engaged doing something. All of the problems that may arise for the student in the classroom disappear once they are outside and engaged."
"You get city students completely out of their comfort zone," Parke says of their time on the water. "We go to western PA, northern Cambria County, these kids come out in camo and muck boots, every student in the group. Compared to your average Joe, these are outdoors students."
Students learn and form their opinions from the discoveries they make. "Some kids have never held a fish or didn't know there were bugs that live in the water," Thorpe says. "So when they see that quantity of life, they might think that the water quality is really good. Maybe all we're catching are shiners or water striders, and Tom and I are thinking 'not such a good day on the creek.' But to that kid maybe it is showing them there is life out there that they didn't know about previously."
Critters are important to the curriculum. "It's like asking the locals," Parke says. "The life in the water lives there 24/7, so you use the life to gain a long-term perspective of what's happening in the water."
"It's a little easier to connect with critters than it is to data," Thorpe adds. "Living things are a little more charismatic. The more questions you can ask about it the more excited students get about it. If it has a funny mouth shape or funny color, they are gonna latch onto something about it and ask questions."
"Amphibians are always so important," Parke says. "Things like salamanders, because they respirate through their skin and are so vulnerable to their surroundings. They are fun critters to catch, hold, and see. The important thing is we are finding them. They are here for a reason."
"Brook trout are always exciting," Thorpe adds. "Even if the kids don't know what one is. We found one with the Steam Academy in York in this tiny tributary of Lake Redman and so it was very cool to see them there. We didn't know they were there."
In this outdoor classroom, size matters. "Get a 14-inch crappie and people are gonna be excited," Parke says. "Big hellgrammites and big crawfish. Big and dramatic."
Parke wants the takeaway for the thousands of SWEEP students should be "that water quality is determined by runoff and what's happening on the land, so they are thinking about the connection to the land and how it affects the water."
In SWEEP, fun is an important tool for connecting young people with water quality. "We're always pushing enjoyment when on the water and that's where we see the connection take place," Parke adds. "If they enjoy it, they want to protect it."
SWEEP's fleet of canoes will shove off again in March.