In pursuit of its mission to educate the public on how to reduce stormwater pollution, the Mid Rio Grande Stormwater Quality Team (MRGSQT) stepped up its outreach commitment by sponsoring 10 Albuquerque classes to participate in RiverXchange. Created in New Mexico, this innovative project educates fifth grade classes about major local water resource issues by combining a year-long curriculum with class partnerships through social networking technology.

Stormwater is the leading source of pollution in the Rio Grande, and most pollution in the Middle Rio Grande can be traced to humans. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) increases its pressure on municipalities throughout the country to reduce stormwater pollution, agencies are finally working together in groups like MRGSQT to develop regional solutions. Vernon Hershberger, MRGSQT chair and environmental health manager at the University of New Mexico, said that the organization chose RiverXchange as its major youth outreach project because, “RiverXchange offers a uniquely effective venue for achieving MRGSQT public education objectives by disseminating
information about urban stormwater pollution challenges in the context of a larger program that informs students about the exceptional importance of water and water quality protection in our semiarid environment.”

The project’s impact is due in large part to its curriculum which involves the coordination of guest speakers into the classroom and a field trip run by local water resources professionals. This outreach is provided by a wide range of agencies and organizations that view RiverXchange as an opportunity gain entrance into area schools to meet their own outreach goals, and work with highly motivated teachers. This year, guest speakers and field trip docents represent at least a dozen agencies and organizations including:

Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority
Bernalillo County Public Works
Bernalillo County Office of Environmental Health
Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension
Bernalillo County Open Space
City of Albuquerque Open Space
La Plazita Institute
New Mexico Office of the State Engineer
Water for People
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District

For guest speaker Steve Glass of Bernalillo County Public Works, “The RiverXchange program provides unparalleled opportunities to educate school-aged children, who carry the environmental stewardship message home to their families. Presenting to school-aged children provides an excellent opportunity to craft a message that is concise and engaging, contributing to improved communication of that message to all age groups.” Glass added that he likes RiverXchange because the project coordinates related lessons about various aspects of water stewardship from several agencies, enhancing the effectiveness of each individual message. He highly recommends the project as an outreach opportunity for other water-related agencies.

The project connects teachers with far more guest speakers than they would normally organize on their own, from organizations and field trip locations they may not have known existed. Teacher Colleen Ruiz of Annunciation Catholic School underscored the value of these guest speakers. “Community relationships are very important to our school. We are very excited about working with experts in the field who can teach us valuable lessons and provide career opportunity information. Water is one of our most valuable resources.” Corina Fraire-Duran of Cochiti Elementary noted, “My knowledge base of the local agencies that are involved in the process has been broadened. As for the students, they are enhancing their technology base and becoming more aware of how they can be active citizens that are reducing their carbon [foot]print.”

In addition to MRGSQT’s funding, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sponsors 12 Albuquerque classes, enabling 22 Albuquerque classes to participate. The project also serves classes in Rio Rancho and Santa Fe County through a variety of funding sources. With a total of 45 New Mexico classes and 45 partner classes involved, RiverXchange is reaching about 2000 students this year. All components of the project – including identifying and securing partner classes, field trip coordination and bus transportation, guest speaker coordination and teacher technical training — are provided free of charge to teachers. This year, one or more classes are participating from these Albuquerque schools:

Annunciation Catholic School
Cochiti Elementary
Collet Park Elementary
Hawthorne Elementary.
Holy Ghost Catholic School
John Baker Elementary
Lew Wallace Elementary
Navajo Elementary
North Star Elementary
Sandia Base Elementary
Sunset View Elementary

RiverXchange kicked off in September for Albuquerque classes when they were partnered with classes located in nine states, two Canadian provinces and a U.S. military base school in Aviano, Italy. Teachers were trained on how to implement the curriculum, how to manage information on their private class wiki, and about guest speakers and field trip opportunities. All classes are following the curriculum at approximately the same time during the school year. Each teacher’s primary responsibility is to update his/her own private class wiki website with general information, and secure computer time every few weeks for students to write to their pen pals. Since students have their very own page on the class wiki, they get to share what they are learning with their pen pal and comment on their partner’s page.

About a week ago my class went on a tour of our school. We learned a bunch of stuff about the way our school uses water. When rain falls on the roof of our school pipes carry the water down and then the water runs off. We also learned what a dentention pound is. We have a lot of detention ponds around our school. On our walk we found out our school has sertan slops on purpous. It has sertan slops to lead the water and keep the water away from our school. The body of water rain drains to is the Rio Grande. We also learned that some water infiltrats, some runsoff, and some evaporats. It was fun on our tour and I learnd a lot. – Rachel, Sunset View Elementary

WOW thats very interesting!!!!!!!! – Kelsey (Rachel’s pen pal from Kentucky)

A challenge for most outreach projects is demonstrating impact, but RiverXchange offers a unique kind of proof that learning is occurring: the impact of the project is regularly revealed through individual student writing as well as student performance on three on-line assessments.

When rain hits the ground at our school it would hit artificial grass, wood chips, or asphalt. If it hits the asphalt or artificial grass it will run off into the Rio Grande. If it hits the woodchips it will soak in. The temperature has to be hot enough to evaporate the water. When the water gets up to the sky it has to be cold enough to rain. That is how the weather relates to the water cycle.—Teresa, Annunciation Catholic School

The RiverXchange curriculum is divided into three units: Understanding a Watershed, Water in Our Society, and River Ecosystems. Each unit features several hands-on activities to be done by the class that reinforce one or more key water concepts known as The Big Water Questions (see inset). A few hands-on activities are to be done by teachers on their own, but most activities are presented by guest speakers who visit individual classes.

Yesterday we had a guest speaker his name was Anthony Chavez. We learned about a water shed. A water shed is where rain comes down and goes into a river ours is the Rio Grande. When water comes down it cries everything it can such as oil, dirt, sludge, fertilizer, Chemicals and other things. Can and will become a problem if it continues. Luckily our drinking water is filtered and cleaned before we drink it. It’s still not a good idea to pollute. Anthony Chavez had us put stuff to represent the dirt and all the pollutants that gets dump in the Rio Grande. When it rained the sludge turned black and it all went into the main supply of water. People shouldn’t pollute because it ruins a beautiful river and our drinking water. – Kendell, North Star Elementary

A field trip to the local river, tributary or riparian area is the component that initially draws many teachers to the project. About half of Albuquerque classes will visit Sanchez Farm to learn about agriculture, acequias, and stormwater control by the constructed wetland on-site. The site is a Bernalillo County Open Space property, and La Plazita Institute operates the farm. Other classes will visit the Tingley Beach Wetland or La Orilla Bosque, managed by City of Albuquerque Open Space. Colleen Langan of Bernalillo County Open Space likes RiverXchange because it helps students get outdoors and make real connections to their environment. It also builds on knowledge many students
gained as fourth graders if they attended the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Children’s Water Festival. “This extended field experience in the fifth grade allows student to have greater understanding and interest in water issues, which is vital for our community living sustainably in an arid environment,” said Langan, one of the field trip docents.

We went to Sanchez Farms to see open space. We planted garlic, saw a concrete barrier that blocks trash from the river,and saw an acequia (ditch). We also saw marigolds, cabbage, and a dragonfly. My class and I had a great time! What is the main purpose of this acequia? To water farms, plants, and trees. What does every acequia need to move water? Goes on a slope and is forced by gravity. Why isn’t there water in this acequia year-round? Well because the weather is too cold, and it’s not the growing season and the plants will not grow. –Johanna, Navajo Elementary

New this year is a math activity called Don’t Trash Our Rio that incorporates statistics about the amount of trash collected by the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo and Flood Control Authority in 2009 before the trash reached the Rio Grande. The goal is to help students understand the nature and magnitude of issues like trash and other forms of water pollution so that raw data becomes more meaningful to a fifth grader.

The climate in our area is very hot, dry, and we don’t get a lot of precipitation. The river I will be telling you about is the Rio Grande. No, I haven’t been to the Rio. My favorite animal that lives there is the garter snake. Its diet is fish, frogs, toads, and lizards. My favorite plant that lives there is the six weeks grama. It is thirty cm tall and twenty five mm long. Sadly those animals and plants might not be there any more. Last year workers pulled out 26,000 cubic yards of trash. That would fill seven class rooms,we would be able to fill each class room to the ceiling about 13 times. – Joshua, Holy Ghost Catholic School

RiverXchange adds value to the learning experience for everyone involved because it coordinates hands-on activities into an exciting, coherent whole — without unduly burdening teachers. By aligning the project with state educational standards for science, social studies and language arts, RiverXchange shows teachers how easy and fun it is to use water as a theme and also satisfy multiple teaching requirements at the same time. In addition, all activities address the language arts standards for writing, which is a key skill teachers are asked to integrate into all content areas.

The pen pal component of the project creates an “audience” which motivates students because they know their partners will be reading what they write, and they are responsible for reading and commenting on their partners’ pages. Teacher Azizah Sumner of John Baker Elementary agreed to participate in RiverXchange for many reasons. “I saw it as a great opportunity to address many areas in my curriculum at once–social studies, science, writing, and technology. RiverXchange also seemed like a good way to expose students to water issues they need to be aware of to be informed, responsible citizens. RiverXchange closely aligns with my teaching goals…I can frequently reference RiverXchange in various lessons, which makes the lesson more meaningful for the students,” she said.

As the year progresses, students build upon concepts they have learned to form a broad understanding of the water resource issues in their area. They get to examine many aspects of the river in their own back yard, and take pride in sharing their knowledge of their local river ecosystem. The project enables students located in vastly different geographical locations the unique opportunity to see and hear each other, ask questions, and share personal experiences about water resource issues in their communities. Students gain a broader understanding of the importance of a river to human life by learning from their peers about another watershed and comparing it with their own. A goal for organizers is that participants will be motivated to take action to protect local water resources.

“We are learning about our watershed and how what we do impacts it greatly, said Navajo Elementary teacher Angela Durham. “We started a recycling program at Navajo and the students pick-up the teachers’ tubs and have seen how much paper we are recycling versus throwing it into a dump site. It has impacted how we use water and other resources at school, as well as in our homes. Our campus is also cleaner because we pick up trash as we walk to our destinations (cafeteria, gym, art class, etc.). It has enlightened us and makes us feel like we can make a difference.”

For teacher Allison Stansbury of Holy Ghost Catholic School, the various components of the project – presenters, pen pals, formal and informal assessment — help her determine her students’ level of mastery of science content like never before. When asked what she and her students are getting out of the project, she immediately responded, “I have learned that students can be held to extremely high standards of learning – and that the application of that learning prepares them to be environmentally aware future citizens.”

For the members of MRGSQT, RiverXchange offers a unique opportunity to help our youngest citizens learn the basics about stormwater pollution — and what they can do to “Keep the Rio Grand.”