Rivers Curriculum Project

By Margot McMillen | October 2, 1995
From Missouri Conservationist: Oct 1995

Even when empty of students, Gerry Boehm's science classroom bubbles with life. Aerators gurgle in a half dozen aquariums that hold fish, crawdads, an enormous tadpole and an amphibian called a water dog. A snake sheds its skin in a terrarium by the window.

Color is everywhere: on birdhouses, wasp nests, conservation posters and plants. In the background, a tape of jungle bird songs plays softly. For Francis Howell High School teacher Gerry Boehm, this is science.

Motivational signs peek out from odd places. "There is always room at the top," says a sign on Boehm's cluttered desk. "Successful people form habits of doing things unsuccessful people don't want to," advises another. Over the doorway is the teacher's honest reminder, "Old Age and Treachery Will Overcome Youth and Skill."

The students bring more energy into the room. They wear flannel shirts, blue jean shorts and sandals with socks on this windy April day. Boehm dresses casual too, wearing a sweatshirt with an environmental message.

More an advisor than a lecturer, Boehm greets the students, finds an empty school desk to sit on and passes out copies of USA Today. He points to the front page article, 'Ozone Loss Measured ...'

"Write an essay," Boehm said, "and tell me what UVB rays are and how can they damage DNA and affect plants. Brainstorm. Tell me what can be done to prevent further deterioration. Ozone will be affected for 40 years if we stop making CFCs now. You'll be retired and that baby will still be kicking it out."

The youthful scholars nod solemnly.

"And look at this," Boehm said, passing out copies of a book on car care. "You need to know how to keep your cars running their best."

The class is Environmental Studies, a new kind of science class that combines scientific inquiry with current events, critical thinking, writing, history and social studies. Boehm teaches three periods of this class, along with three other classes of science. After school, he organizes special science club activities and coaches the basketball team. The students call him "Coach."

For Environmental Studies, Boehm has written the curriculum, gathered readings and devised low-budget, high-impact projects. In this class, students are encouraged to observe, study and form opinions about the world of nature. A teacher since 1968, Boehm says this class has reinvigorated him.

Francis Howell High School, near St. Charles, is perfectly placed for such a class. The building adjoins the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area. Lake 9, a small fishing pond, is right outside the front door. The community has been supportive in planning and building an outdoor classroom. Businesses have donated trees and lumber for benches and bridges. Just a short walk from the classroom, students can sit in the woods or on a patch of Conservation Department prairie.

"We go to school so that we can provide service to somebody some day," said Boehm in the class discussion. In this class, students are already involved in providing service. They visit elementary schools on Earth Day to talk about recycling. They sell T-shirts and collect aluminum to fund the outdoor classroom.

Through a project called Rivers Curriculum, coordinated by Southern Illinois University, the students are gathering data from the Missouri River that will be used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and many other agencies, schools and private companies.

The Rivers Curriculum Project was begun by Dr. Robert Williams at S.I.U. to train high school students to gather data that could be used by professionals. By using students to collect water on specific days of the year, Williams reasoned, researchers could gain a picture of the entire river. They could look for differences in water as it traveled between, say, Little Falls, Neb. and Cairo, Ill. They could see "hot spots" of excessive pollution and examine the impact of rural and urban water use.

Today, the project involves 330 schools in 36 states. Schools as far away as Massachusetts are testing their local waterways and reporting the results by modem to the central office at S.I.U. According to Cindy Bidlack, project coordinator, the E.P.A. has used project results in its reports to Congress and has investigated pollution revealed by student work. When rechecking results, the professionals have been pleased with the accuracy of data turned in by students.

A component of the project - the zebra mussel case study - has been useful to both government and private industry. Zebra mussels, native to the Black Sea, first came into the Great Lakes in ballast water carried by ships. They were first identified in 1989, and have rapidly spread to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, where they are taking over the food supply, smothering native mussels and clogging industrial water intake valves.

The Rivers Curriculum Project does not stop with the science class. While science literacy is the major goal of the project, students also produce history essays on river travel, bridges or dams.

In English class, students read writings by conservationists and river writers and write river poems. S.I.U. publishes a yearly collection of student writing and the project's newsletter contains student poetry and drawings.

Several Missouri schools are participating in the Rivers Curriculum Project. To enter the project, teachers must be trained in proper collection techniques and in testing for dissolved oxygen, fecal coliform, pH, biochemical oxygen demand, temperature, total phosphate and nitrate content, turbidity and total solids.

Membership in the program is free, but schools must provide equipment, including nets, water test kits and a modem to send and receive information. Through a network, data from all over the country is available to students for project reports.

Usually, even experienced science teachers need training to run the tests and build the program into the curriculum. The Rivers Curriculum Project provides training seminars or sends experienced teachers to orient new members. Gerry Boehm, one of the first Missouri teachers in the program, is now a teacher trainer.

Safety for students is stressed. If water is high, as has been the case in Missouri lately, teachers do the collecting. When that happens, Boehm collects the Missouri River water early in the morning (about 5 a.m.) and brings it to school. Students get experience collecting, however, from nearby smaller tributaries, such as Callaway Creek.

Today, Gerry Boehm's 5th period teams of investigators are readying the results to be sent to S.I.U. This is the first of three days Boehm has put aside for analysis.

The teams work independently, and when they agree on data they enter the results in a chart on the chalkboard. The turbidity team is finished. Their numbers: 2.5/4.5 are filled in. One of them reads the car book, while the others brainstorm over the newspaper essay.

At the chalkboard, the nitrates team is having an argument. Somebody in this class or the last has misplaced a zero, making one result ten times higher than the other.

"Before we turn it in to S.I.U., we'll make sure we have the most accurate, precise data," Boehm said. "See if you can figure out what happened. Look at other collection results and compare." He then moved to another desk, near a group of four students discussing a completely different project.

Earth Day is approaching and this quartet of high schoolers is rehearsing the talk they will give to fourth-grade classes. "Talk slow." Boehm counsels. "Don't use so much jargon."

A student suggests, "We can ask if anyone knows what recycling means and let them guess until they get it right."

"And give them something for trying ... maybe a pencil," says another.

"Right," says Boehm. "These are little kids."

The nitrates team is studying some resource materials, and the pH team has gone to the chalkboard.

"Look, Coach," one calls to Boehm. "The pH results have gone up every hour."

Sure enough. Third period reported a pH of 7.0 By fourth period it was 7.5. By fifth it was 8.0

The students suggest reasons for the change. Maybe some classes ran tests differently than others. Maybe the water was colder in the earlier hour, or maybe it was warmer. Boehm tells them to write down all the possible reasons for differences, compare it to other tests, then go to the books and try to explain them.

There is a ripple of excitement as the students brainstorm about the varying test results. It's as if - and this is possible - the students might be able to teach the teacher something. "We're attacking this environmental study together," said Boehm. "I don't know all there is to know. I have to go to the books myself."

The Rivers Curriculum Project has given Boehm's class, in his words, "labs with meaning." Unlike the standard science lab, where students pursue age-old exercises, such as depriving a plant of light or crystalizing salts then dissolving them again, the students in the classroom are exploring new territory.

What they learn could have significance. The nine chemistry tests they run are not innovative, but the regularity of the testing results in a body of scientific data that has never been available. Seasonal variations, due to flooding or drought, are recorded. The effect of chemical changes on biological life are noted.

Water, as conservationists are aware, is the issue of the 1990s. Missourian have had the luxury of good, fresh water and expected it to always be available. Pollution is affecting this precious resource.

All environmental abuses - from pesticides in the cities to herbicides on fields - end up in the water eventually. Sewage treatment, irrigation, recreation, industrial processes and shipping all depend on, and damage, water.

Boehm sees the Rivers Curriculum Project as a way to encourage students to think about the future and to begin a lifetime of caring about resources. "You're going to be making some decisions as an adult," he tells them, "They've got big plans for your tax dollar. Will they provide a product we're going to like?"

Boehm has been teaching since 1968. He remembers his early classes, where students were told to sit up straight and pay attention. "Those days are past," he said, looking around his informally arranged classroom, the little groups bent busily over their projects. "This is not a dead-end, sterile way to study science. It has turned the kids on."

Boehm's students keep journals and a glance at one or two confirm what he has said. "I wish that we could have a class like this at least once a week," writes one student, "We collected many fish, tadpoles, spiders, etc., and specimens of water ..."

"We went on our river testing field trip today," another wrote, "First we went to the Missouri River. I was on a dissolved oxygen team. We took the dissolved oxygen four times. I loved the field trip! I actually felt like it was worthwhile. We were actually collecting data that was going to be used.

"I think that's what true education is all about. I'm excited for our next river test, to see if it changes any."

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Paul Childress
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer