We had spent the last few hours trudging through foot deep mud, shovels and long wooden stakes thrown over our shoulders. Most of us were able to keep our footing as the mud swallowed our ankles and shins. However, a few pairs of wet brown shorts betrayed the students who hadn’t been quite as successful. We were wet. We were muddy. We were tired. And we couldn’t be happier.
We’d just spent the last few hours helping the National Park Service restore Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary, a wetland no more than ten minutes from our urban middle school and a stone’s throw from the center of Washington D.C. The field trip had been months in the making. Back in January, we had decided to make it our mission to improve the local environment by planting wetlands, thus restoring habitats for native species and improving water quality. We’d spent the better part of the winter and spring in our life science class building this project up from an idea to a reality. We’d researched wetlands and written a grant to fund our project. We emailed local environmental organizations, invited guest speakers, and created a website and social media to spread the word about our project. In a class meeting, we’d voted on the title of Watershed Warriors, a title that encompassed our mission to improve the watershed in our backyards. Along the way, we’d covered all of the science Standards of Learning, or SOLs, that a seventh-grade science student in Virginia was expected to know before they moved on to summer break and the next school year.
However, the school year was coming to a close, and we were in the midst of preparing for our final exams. What would happen to the Watershed warriors when we all moved on to the next grade and got scattered among different science classes?
As one of the student leaders of the project, it had amazed me to see what a group of students could accomplish with the right guidance and commitment. We had learned skills such as how to organize a project, communicate effectively, and systematically solve a problem in a real world environment with real world implications, an experience that a textbook could never provide. We’d seen science in action in our own community and realized that we could be the drivers of this action. I wanted other students in Alexandria to have the same opportunity to be the driving force behind change in our community. So as we all made plans for the summer, I decided to write another grant to secure funding to continue the Watershed Warriors. The Watershed Warriors would teach 5th graders at local elementary schools about wetlands, tying in important SOL standards that they would need to know for the end of year exam. Over a two-day classroom event, the students would complete a hands-on lab identifying wetland plants and plant a wetland garden of their own at their school. Then, after their end of year SOL tests, the students would take a field trip planned with a partnership with the National Parks Service to a wetland to transplant their wetland plants and perform water quality testing with the help of NPS rangers.
And thus, the Watershed Warriors Initiative was born. Watershed Warriors is now a student-led organization and full club at T.C Williams High School with over twenty members, some of whom were in the original life science class. In the last three years, the Watershed Warriors has engaged over 280 fifth graders from ACPS elementary schools, including Jefferson-Houston, Cora Kelly, Lyles-Crouch, and Maury. We work with these students to promote awareness and enthusiasm for the environment and STEM through hands-on STEM lessons. In addition to our wetland lessons, we have expanded to teach more lessons a year so that we can provide additional science SOL review through hands-on labs and activities. These SOL review lessons are always tied back to the local environment, which places the information in real world context for the students and increases their environmental awareness.
Every time I pass Roaches Run, I point out the wetland plants we planted together in 7th grade to whoever I’m with. To this day, I am proud of what we did and know that I helped make a lasting impact on my community. And that is why the Watershed Warriors exists. Because one day, our students will pass by the park where they planted wetlands and helped pick up trash and point it out to their parents, the friends, their siblings. When they pass that park, they’ll know that they, too, had the power to make their corner of their world a little bit greener.