This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Beakers filled with muddy brown water stood on the tables in the cafeteria at the Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School, each surrounded by four intent 6th graders. Their task: purify the water, make it run clear.
The groups all had the same set of supplies: a cotton ball, screen, coffee filter, funnel, sand, gravel, and a graduated cylinder.
Abbey Keller, Miranda Wernert, Zion Sykes, and Chris Tangradi thought they knew how to get rid of the large sticks and stones. They inserted their funnel in the top of the graduated cylinder, placed the coffee filter inside the funnel, and balanced the screen on top.
But the tinier particles? After a good deal of talk, they decided to fill the coffee filter with sand, and put the cotton ball at the bottom of the funnel.
It was time to see whether it worked. Chris lifted the beaker of dirty water as the other students leaned in for a closer look.
Cook-Wissahickon is one of nine neighborhood schools participating in a teacher fellowship program run by the Fairmount Water Works that is using Philadelphia’s urban watershed as a teaching and learning tool. The teachers and the educational staff of the Water Works are jointly developing a hands-on, inquiry-based curriculum that combines biology, history and other subjects to help middle schoolers understand why the watershed is so important.
“Students get excited about learning when they can relate to the content — water is one of these things that we can all connect to in one way or another personally,” said Ellen Freedman Schultz, the longtime associate director for education at the Water Works.
Originally her position involved organizing field trips and other enrichment activities. Freedman initiated this program as a way to also have an impact on what students and teachers do every day in the classroom.
“Water issues are in the news practically every day now,” she said. “Realizing the backstory of their tap water is hugely important to [students’] role as environmental stewards.”
The project, a three-year effort, is jointly funded by the Fairmount Water Works and a grant from the William Penn Foundation. In its first year alone, the program involved more than 500 students at the nine schools. It is funded at least through 2017, and Shultz is optimistic that it may be adopted by more schools after the first three years.
“Our hope is that all Philadelphia schools adopt this urban watershed curriculum for middle school students so they can play an active role in ensuring the long-term health of Philadelphia’s waterways,” she said.
Two teachers from each school have participated in 60 hours of professional development to help design the curriculum. So far, units include the history of Philadelphia’s drinking water system and biology lessons – like this one – that are applicable to all ecosystems.
“The people that would be using the curriculum needed to play an integral role in creating it,” Schultz said. The professional development was also an opportunity to “give the teachers a combination of background content knowledge, pedagogical approaches, and lesson planning time.”
The program also uses the area outside the school buildings. Students monitor storm drains, calculating runoff after rainstorms and brainstorming ways to redirect it. They conduct experiments and research projects based on the soil, animals, and plants along the river. They take field trips where they can observe, write about, and even photograph the local ecosystem.
The curriculum gives students in underfunded public schools opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have, Schultz said. The teachers at Cook-Wissahickon explained that the school does not have a science lab. They weren’t just creating a water filtration system; this was also a chance for students to conduct a real experiment using common equipment that schools with more funding take for granted.
Science and literacy teacher Karen Brinkley and social studies and math teacher Ashon Washington, Cook-Wissahickon’s participating teachers, bustled around the cafeteria giving students advice. Brinkley said that the professional development helped her realize that just as students benefit from working in groups, teachers also should “recognize that we need to work collaboratively to put the pieces together.”
When asked how the activities in this program compared to their usual science class, all four students immediately asserted this was “more fun.” Zion explained that in their typical science classes: “We usually only write notes and copy stuff in our books.”
Miranda said her favorite activity was reading a story about water shortages in Sudan.
Washington felt it was important for the students to learn about “how water is used in different countries. The water system is different in the U.S. People don’t use as much water in other countries.”
As part of that class, the students were asked to guess what percentage of the world’s fresh water was clean enough to drink. Their teacher filled two beakers side by side. One contained clean water, and the other dirty water. The beakers were a visual representation of the ratio of clean fresh water in the world compared to unsafe drinking water. Miranda was surprised by how much of the world’s fresh water is unsafe to drink. Her guess wasn’t even close. The three others gave somber nods of agreement.
The program also operates at James Dobson, a Manayunk elementary and middle school within walking distance of the Schuylkill River. In Kim Fullam’s 6th-grade class, she taught a unit on Philadelphia’s drinking water history in the 1800s. Picking the topics they thought were most important, students performed short skits they wrote based on political issues surrounding Philadelphia’s infrastructure during the 19th century. Skits included topics such as municipal drinking water, decaying infrastructure, and public health.
Fullam said the curriculum is “exactly what I’m looking for” because “the students research problems that they themselves identified.”
The curriculum is “fabulous,” said Dobson principal Patricia Cruice.
“We as a faculty have been focusing on each student having ownership of their own learning,” she said. “This is project-based, inquiry-based, in which students themselves come up with the questions.”
Two of the students, London and Aniyah, explained that they grew to care about water pollution after their last class project – cataloguing all the common species of fish in the Schuylkill River. They each drew a picture and wrote a report on the characteristics of one species.
London was inspired by learning that some fish can live in polluted waters. Aniyah pointed out that some fish can live in a limited amount of pollution, but others are harmed by that same amount of pollution. They were fascinated by fish that actually help keep the water clean for other species. The group proudly led the way to their class bulletin board displaying dozens of species of fish they collectively catalogued.
Back in the cafeteria at Cook-Wissahickon, Abbey, Miranda, and Zion bustled around their filter as Chris lifted the beaker of muddy water. He began to pour. The funnel swelled with brown liquid, and nearly overflowed before Chris stopped. The four sat watching in quiet anticipation. The water slowly receded into the sand, leaving chunks of dirt on top of the screen.
The students seemed nervous as the water level began to sink without any filtered water flowing from the bottom of the funnel. Just as they began to question if it was working at all, a stream of clear water trickled into the cylinder. Gradually the water level rose and the students were left with a cylinder full of clear water.
It almost looked clean enough to drink.