What Grows from Groundwater?

Robert Capriccioso
August 29, 2005

In May, the Awesome Aquifers competition became a new component of the National Science Olympiad Tournament.

Then, this summer, more than 1,350 young Nebraskans participated in the ?H2O on the Go? program, taking part in water games, building water cycle terrariums, and chowing down on edible (and educational) Earth parfaits.

And come fall, teens who have environmental interests will converge for a Youth Groundwater Congress summit, where they will be asked to share groundwater-related concerns from their communities.

What Is It?
Groundwater is water found underground in the cracks and spaces in soil, sand and rock. According to the foundation, groundwater provides 50 percent of the nation?s drinking water. In Nebraska, that figure is 98 percent.

Landfills, septic tanks, leaky underground gas tanks, and overuse of fertilizers and pesticides can all lead to groundwater pollution.

The projects are all part of an energetic focus on early environmental education by the Groundwater Foundation, based in Lincoln, Nebraska. The nonprofit?s mission is to educate and motivate people to care for and about groundwater?not always the easiest of tasks, according to staff members.

?There are kids who don?t have any idea about this topic,? says Carla Otredosky, the youth program coordinator with the foundation. ?It?s a hard thing to sell sometimes?there are a lot more romantic environmental subjects that people can learn about.?

To help combat that problem, Otredosky says that more early education programs nationwide are necessary in order to help kids grow into adults who understand the importance of protecting the environment.

Increasing Environmental Literacy
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the National Environmental Education Act. The Act provided the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with a mandate to strengthen and expand environmental education as an integral part of its mission to protect the environment. It was intended to stimulate environmental education by supporting design, demonstration and communication projects conceived by local organizations. Over the past several years, in addition to funding from many private and public companies, the Groundwater Foundation has received various EPA grants to support its efforts.

Still, Kevin J. Coyle, President of the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation, says that today most Americans remain environmentally illiterate.

?Forty five million Americans think the ocean is a source of freshwater, 120 million think spray cans still have CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in them though [they were] banned in 1978, another 120 million people think disposable diapers are the leading problem with landfills when they are about 1 percent of the problem, and 130 million believe that hydropower is America?s top energy source, though it accounts for just 10 percent of the total,? he comments in the 2004 report Understanding Environmental Literacy in America.

Coyle says that most people might assume that younger people know more about the environment than older people. Instead, he indicates that older people (ages 35-54) actually tend to be more knowledgeable about the environment.

He notes that both school- and community-based projects are important in reversing that trend. He also adds that youth who receive instruction in both environmental issues and action strategies tend to feel more responsible about making a difference. ?Such a sense of responsibility increases confidence and self esteem,? says Coyle. ?It also helps them feel part of ?something larger than them.??

Something Larger
Earlier this year the Groundwater Foundation reached out to organizers of the National Science Olympiad in an effort to promote environmental literacy. The Olympiad is composed of a series of school-based competitions devoted to improving the quality of science education, increasing student interest in science, and providing recognition for outstanding achievement in science education by both students and teachers. Students across the country compete in events, which they prepare for throughout the school year.

The foundation designed this year?s Olympiad event called Awesome Aquifers. Prior to competition, students constructed functioning groundwater models and researched groundwater hydrogeology. During the event, students were asked to manipulate their models to demonstrate and describe specific concepts.

Fifty-eight teams of two middle school students competed in the program at the 2005 National Science Olympiad Tournament in May at the University of Illinois.

?The kids really seemed to enjoy it,? notes Otredosky. ?Some of their models were really in-depth, the size of a 10-gallon aquarium.?

The foundation recently announced that Awesome Aquifers will be offered again in 2006 at the national tournament. For 2006, Otredosky says, the foundation will revise some of the contest rules, and continue to provide students and event coordinators with educational resources, along with help recruiting judges.

H2O on the Go
With the organization already focused on providing educational resources through its Web site, foundation staff this year wanted to begin providing several hands-on, educational projects, games, and experiments for local youth. Thus, the traveling ?H2O on the Go? was born, including projects such as ?From Trash to Terrific? (where students learn how paper is made, the importance of water in the process, and how to recycle paper to make their own new paper) and ?Nature?s Filter? (where students compete to construct the most efficient filtration model, while discovering the ability of wetland soils to filter pollutants out of contaminated water).

In the months leading up to summer 2005, foundation staff pursued several partnerships with organizations that target youth and families. ?[W]e have worked with a variety of summer and after-school type educational programs,? explains Otredosky. ?We target groups that do not incorporate water education in their summer programming like YMCA, Girls and Boys Club, and Cedars Youth Services. We are also working with summer camps that have environmental themes, but in these cases we are raising the bar for groundwater.?

In addition, they recruited youth education directors in Lincoln, Nebraska and surrounding areas to develop customized lesson plans appropriate for each individual venue that Groundwater staff visit.

Youth Groundwater Congress
Currently, the staff of the Groundwater Foundation is preparing for the second annual Youth Groundwater Congress, which will be held in November in Nebraska City, Nebraska. The event is a three-day national conference open to students between the ages of 10 and 15. It will feature hands-on activities, area tours, and opportunities for youth voices to be heard by their peers as well as professionals in the environmental field.

Be There!
Applications are now being accepted for the Youth Groundwater Congress. Visit www.groundwater.org or call Carla Otredosky or Zoe McManaman at the Groundwater Foundation at 1-800-858-4844 for an application packet. Be sure to ask about the availability of scholarships and travel stipends. All students are required to be accompanied by an adult chaperone.

Several Native American youth are already scheduled to take part in the event. ?These youth will represent several different Nebraska tribes such as the Ponca, Pawnee, and Winnebago,? says Susan Seacrest, director of the foundation. ?Both the audience and content of this program will be focused on Native perspectives relating to weather, water and wildlife. Each of these ?W? topics will be the focus of a particular day and many of our leaders will be Native environmental experts.?

Prior to attending the conference, participants will be asked to investigate groundwater-related issues in their community and be prepared to share their findings during the conference.

?There are lots of kids out there who are completing phenomenal environmental projects in their home towns?from awareness building projects like water conservation videos, or environmental sustainability projects like home construction with green building materials, to research projects like measuring the impacts of drought on fish and wildlife,? says Otredosky. ?These high-caliber students come to us as leaders in their schools, and return to their communities as leaders for environmental change.?

Coming Soon
This year there was so much interest in youth environmental education activities at the Groundwater Foundation that organizers could not accommodate all the requests for participation in programs like ?H2O on the Go.?

?We?re always looking at ways to get our message to more students,? says Otredosky. In that effort, organizers plan to host workshops and individual training sessions for education directors and their staff from around the country, so that they, too, can foster confident teachers who understand the value of environmental education.

?Focusing our efforts less on our own presentations and more on training educators and helping them feel comfortable with teaching students about water resources will help ensure that water education remains in their programming in future years,? notes Otredosky. ?It is our goal to build environmental awareness in future generations long after ?H2O on the Go? staff have left their facility.?