We would love to hear your MWEE Success Story! Contact Liz Sharp (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information on how to share your story here.
Meaningful Watershed Education at Hidden Oaks Nature Center
If you work in government, it is imperative that you learn to love your acronyms. At the Northern Virginia Conservation District, one acronym that is easy to love (and to say!) is MWEE. Pronounced mee-wee, it stands for Meaningful Watershed Education Experience. Inspired by the environmental literacy goals of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement, Virginia encourages schools to provide all students with at least one MWEE in elementary, middle, and high school. MWEEs are intended to be investigative or project based, and not necessarily limited to just one school day. With those goals in mind, Northern Virginia Conservation District staff partnered with staff and volunteers from Fairfax County’s Stormwater Planning Division, Hidden Oaks Nature Center, and Master Naturalists to put on a MWEE for International Baccalaureate Environmental Systems and Society students from Lee, Mount Vernon, and Annandale High Schools.
Over four days in the fall of 2019, more than one hundred IB students from all three high schools descended on Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale to learn simple but effective sampling, measurement, and analysis techniques from soil, plant, and aquatic specialists, including District staff. Taking this new knowledge back to their classrooms, the students formulated a research question and devised an experimental procedure whereby they would collect at least twenty five data points to attempt to answer their question. The same specialists who participated in the Hidden Oaks field day also visited multiple classrooms to offer constructive critiques of the students’ fledgling research questions and data collection procedures.
With revised research questions and experimental plans, the students were ready to head back outside and run their experiments. The students from Lee High School returned as a group to Hidden Oaks for a day of data collection supervised by the same staff members that had participated previously. Owing to time constraints and bus availability, the Mount Vernon and Annandale students collected their data independently at sites around the county.
Pioneered by Rachel Clausen of Lee High School and Suzanne Holland of Hidden Oaks Nature Center, this annual MWEE started in 2017, and for the first two years included only Lee High School’s IB students. This year, teachers from Mount Vernon and Annandale observed Ms. Clausen’s class on their initial field day at Hidden Oaks, and liking what they saw, decided to expand the MWEE to their own schools. The Conservation District has been a partner since the beginning and looks forward to continuing to assist this MWEE into the future. As word gets out, perhaps even more high schools will participate in 2020!
Many times, we hear MWEE Success Stories that highlight the school districts, teachers, and partners involved to create a meaningful watershed experience for the students. Tri-County/City Soil & Water Conservation District partners with various agencies including other SWCDs, county public schools, Virginia State Parks, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Natural Resource Conservation Services, and Department of Forestry to name a few, to provide outdoor education opportunities in the counties of King George, Spotsylvania, Stafford, and the City of Fredericksburg. However, for this past year’s success story, we would love to highlight the volunteers who made many of these events possible.
Last April in 2019, volunteers and agency partners came together to bring the annual Aspen Grove Farm watershed field day for King George Elementary School into fruition. While the stations were prepped and students eager to run down the hill to start their hands-on learning, the volunteers were prepared to put their own knowledge to the test. Prior to arriving at Aspen Grove Farm, all the volunteers and agency partners made a commitment – reduce the amount of trash we were going to produce during that field day. They were determined to not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk.
Each volunteer was asked to bring their own bowl or plate, utensils, cup, and water bottle. Breakfast was catered from Panera Bread and served along with fruit in bowls, hot tea, hot chocolate, and coffee in canisters to share on the brisk, April morning. In the afternoon, Tri-County/City prepared the lunch menu of delicious deli sliced meat packaged in paper, a hearty homemade salad, and chips with snacks on the side. The total meal fed well over 20 people and produced less than one plastic shopping bag worth of trash.
While we were unable to go 100% zero waste, the amount of trash accumulated was already a significant decrease. Everyone packed their used utensils and bowls to clean the residue at home while Tri-County/City worked to recycle and repurpose as many items as possible. The sturdy, gallon bottles of Arizona Green Tea became water jugs for future events. The 2 litter soda bottles were repurposed as supplies for water filters that would be used in the following year’s classroom programs. The Panera Bread boxes transformed into recycling collection containers.
Educating the public is an integral part of reaching Virginia’s goals of preventing soil erosion and protecting water quality. Tri-County/City works alongside local partnering agencies to provide meaningful educational opportunities to students of all ages that will inspire future stewards of Virginia lands and waters. Our programs are catered to the audience and we believe that an understanding and increased awareness of natural resources leads to lifelong behavioral change. We hope to inspire those behavioral changes when we live by example. And when we falter and make mistakes along the way, we want our students to know so that we all can continue to learn and grow together.
Thank you to our generous volunteers who not only make MWEEs possible in our community but live by example to inspire future environmental stewards.
2018 marked the second year that Fairfax County Stormwater Management (STW), Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) and the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (NVSWCD) offered a MWEE opportunity for Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) high school IB students. Every year, each individual IB student must design and implement a field research project for their IB requirements. Rachel Clausen, IB teacher at Lee High School, reached out to staff at STW to help organize a field event for her students led by local scientists. STW staff coordinated with FCPA and NVSWCD to create an broad reaching innovative and informative program to help Ms. Clausen’s students with their requirements. The program included two days of field work and an opportunity for students to speak to specialists to fine tune their research question
• Field Day #1: Students rotated through four different stations led by subject matter experts (SME): stream geomorphology, water chemistry, soil and plants. Afterwards, the students decide which station that they would want to focus on and design their field research questions and methodology.
• Review Research Question: We learned it was instrumental for each SME to review the research questions to ensure that it was an investigation that could be completed with the tools available and during the time allotted to the students.
• Field Day #2: Students spend the day with the professional running their experiment and collecting data to be used to answer their research questions.
We found that this was an incredibly effective way to introduce real world science and scientists and provide a truly meaningful experience to connect these students to their local watershed and beyond. For more information about STW Watershed Education and Outreach programs, please visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/publicworks/educational-resources or call 703-324-5500, TTY 711.
Each year, the Peter Francisco Soil and Water Conservation District teams up with Virginia Cooperative Extension and local state parks to provide macro invertebrate labs and a MWEE field day for all 6th graders in Buckingham and Cumberland County. Students write a reflective essay as part of their MWEE.
The District applied for and received a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund grant to provide 2 watershed exploration camps—one to explore the Middle and Lower James as well as the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean and one to explore the Headwaters of the James River.
Eight 6th grade MWEE reflective essays were selected from Buckingham County and eight from Cumberland County and their authors were awarded a scholarship to our Watershed Exploration Camp to explore our watershed from our counties to the Atlantic Ocean. Here are highlights of the camp:
- Field trip with Chesapeake Bay Foundation at the Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach. Boarded a 40-foot boat and performed water quality monitoring, trawled for fish, pulled up crab and eel pots and explored marshlands in the Chesapeake Bay.
- Bike ride and swimming at First Landing State Park
- Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center tour and oyster program
- Afternoon swimming and cooking out at the Atlantic Ocean
- Canoeing and fossil digging at York River State Park
The Headwaters Exploration Camp is scheduled for September 28-30, 2018. Seventh and Eighth Grade students who have participated in either 2017 or 2018 Watershed Exploration Camp are invited to participate in this camp. These students already have a firm foundation on the watershed and we hope to build on it.
Our hope is that by keeping these students engaged, they will join their high school Envirothon Team, apply for the District’s college scholarship when they are headed to college, intern with the District during college summer breaks and end up with a career relating to the environment.
In April 2018, close to 600 sixth graders at Benjamin Franklin Middle School (BFMS) in Franklin County visited the creek on their school property for water quality testing. To prepare students for this enlightening experience, the Western Virginia Water Authority (WVWA) first visited each science class to teach students about their water sources, water treatment processes, and the effects that we all have on our watershed, using the Enviroscape model and real-life examples. Special attention is paid to local watersheds and student actions. Students also conducted a simulation of benthic macroinvertebrate sampling using the Project WET lesson. Finally, the WVWA instructor prepared students to begin making inferences about the findings they would make when they visited Powder Mill Creek based on what is happening on their school watershed. The next lesson took place outdoors. With the help of numerous partners, students conducted benthic macroinvertebrate sampling and chemical testing using Probeware and World Water Monitoring Challenge kits. The structures and trails at their outdoor classroom were made possible by a grant from VA DEQ and volunteers from Pathfinders for Greenways. Students wrapped up their MWEE unit back in the classroom. Partners included: Blue Ridge Soil and Water Conservation District, Virginia Save Our Streams, Virginia Master Naturalists Blue Ridge Foothills and Lakes Chapter, retired BFMS teachers, Ferrum College, and additional WVWA staff.
A River Runs Through Us (ARRTU), is a year-long Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE) for all sixth graders in Essex, King George, Lancaster, Middlesex, Richmond and Westmoreland Counties. The program began in 2013 with students from Richmond County, thanks to funding from the Chesapeake Bay Trust and support from partners in the Three Rivers Environmental Educators network. Together, we just completed our fifth year of the program through NOAA B-WET funding and it is amazing to see the growth this program has had. First off, the teachers and administrators I have been working with over the years are out-of-this-world awesome. The science teachers and other members of their team have made integrating environmental education and field experiences into their curriculum almost effortless. I have had so much fun working with them, learning from them and also teaching them about the environment.
Each MWEE is teacher specific although all share a common guiding question, “How do your daily actions impact the health of the river?” Throughout the semester or year, the students do hands-on water quality investigations, artistically review land uses, explore soils and much more. Building off of the background knowledge, students endeavor on an action project that will benefit the health of the river. Throughout the years, we have built floating treatment wetlands, held community cleanups, led fertilizer campaigns, planted riparian buffers, native plant gardens and bioswales, built oyster sentinels, grew grasses and painted storm drains. Together with over 20 partner organizations, we have organized and led field experiences to state parks, research reserves, conservation easements and farms for students to further explore their environment. In conclusion, the students write about what they have learned throughout the program. One student wrote, “Thank you for a great year. You have taught us well in this semester about water. We have learned a lot from you guys. You taught us a good way to conserve water and protect the environment at all costs. We learned that protecting the environment is like protecting your life. This is important what you taught us. We learned a lot this year because of you guys, like about the point of storm drains, Cat Point Creek, and all that very important stuff. That’s why we appreciate you guys for making us learn these amazing facts. In the future, I will make sure that water is conserved and take good care of my environment.” – Montross Middle School, 6th Grader
Additionally, FOR has worked with teachers and administrators to build their understanding of a MWEE and the important role it should play in schools. Participants in our professional developments have traveled from the Bay to the headwaters of the Rappahannock River. They explored just as a student would and learned how this program can integrate into their curriculum.
Since the Fall of 2015, 1,787 students, 90 teachers, 29 administrators and 24 partner organizations have participated in ARRTU. Without every student, teacher, administrator and partner, ARRTU would not be possible.
From the Northern Neck Soil and Water Conservation District:
The Northern Neck Soil and Water Conservation District serves the counties of Lancaster, Northumberland, Richmond and Westmoreland. The District has partnered with Friends of the Rappahannock, Virginia Cooperative Extension and several other groups for several years to present a MWEE that address the 6th grade Science SOLs to Northern Neck students. When this effort began, the program was presented to students at the Lancaster County and Richmond County middle schools. We are happy to report that during the 2017-18 school year, students from all four Northern Neck counties took part in the classroom portion of the program, titled A River Runs Through Us. Students from three of the counties were able to take their new knowledge to the next level by participating in the outdoor component, Think Outside the Sink (TOTS). All partnering organizations present classroom lessons, then have a learning station set up at the TOTS event.
The NNSWCD’s role in this MWEE includes wearing several hats. We take our Mobile Education Unit onsite to the middle schools and conduct lessons for the 6th grade science classes throughout the day. Counties that have block scheduling get a visit from the Mobile Unit twice during the school year. The lesson provides an overview of the value of soil and water, why it is important to conserve natural resources and an explanation of some of the farming practices that the District helps farmers put in place. Students walk through the Mobile Education Unit to get a first hand look at how it might look if they were to be able to take a walk under their backyards. They also take part in a demonstration using runoff boxes in order to see erosion happen in front of them.
The TOTS event takes place outdoors and is considered a field trip for the students. Students from Richmond County and Lancaster County attend their TOTS event at Belle Isle State Park located on the Rappahannock River in Lancaster County. Westmoreland County students go to historic Menokin in Richmond County. All partnering organizations set up stations that the students rotate through during the course of the day, as they learn more about soils, ag practices, forestry, water topics, oysters and marine life. The NNSWCD provides educational input into the TOTS event and also cooks and serves a hot dog lunch to participants who don’t wish to bring their lunch.
We estimate that the NNSWCD’s lessons reach approximately 350 students each school year. Other students and their parents may encounter us and our Mobile Unit at certain community events held around the Northern Neck during the year.
The Blue Ridge Soil and Water Conservation District and its partners are overjoyed at the success our Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE) at Benjamin Franklin Middle School (BFMS) in Rocky Mount, Virginia. BFMS’s two-week MWEE program on Powder Mill Creek was held in March & April, 2017 for 600 sixth-graders. The first week consisted of classroom instruction by dedicated employees from Western Virginia Water Authority, Ferrum College, and BFMS Science teachers. The second week, “Creek Week,” was spent collecting, observing and testing physical, biological and chemical parameters of Powder Mill Creek. The next BFMS MWEE is planned for April 2018. Partners include BFMS, Western Virginia Water Authority, Ferrum College, Blue Ridge Soil and Water Conservation District, Roanoke Valley Greenways, Franklin County E & S Dept., Franklin County Public Schools and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
Teresa Reed, with the Mountain Soil and Water Conservation District, has been working with over one hundred fifth graders in Alleghany County School on mini-MWEEs. In the fall of 2016, Ms. Reed worked with the students on a variety of projects, including: ocean resource conservation; ocean pollution and clean-up, and oil spills in particular; flooding and its effects within watersheds; and bio-monitoring stream health with macroinvertebrates (including the “Build a Bug” activity. In addition, two classes from Callaghan Elementary also had an opportunity to go on a field trip to Lake Moomaw and the headwaters region for the Jackson River. Groups of students tested the river water for temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, nitrate, phosphate, and turbidity. The groups averaged their water quality scores, and gave the headwaters region of the Jackson River an “A” for water quality. The students also learned how environmental and human-related factors affects their watersheds.