Linking Classroom Learning to River Protection

East Peoria, Ill., high school students take part in an award-winning environmental program

Justin Waldsmith dips a test tube into the Illinois River and squints at the cloudy brown liquid, the main source of drinking water for his hometown of East Peoria.

"The biggest pollutant here is from soil erosion," explains Justin, a lanky high school senior. Runoff from farms laces the river water with fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, he says.

Justin and the 1,200 students at East Peoria High School are monitoring the Illinois as part of an award-winning environmental project that closely links classroom learning with efforts to protect regional rivers.

As an estimated 24,000 Americans turn out for National River Cleanup Week (May 11-18), the five-year-old East Peoria project shows how communities can foster the stewardship of fragile river ecosystems over the long run.

Grass-roots support for river revival is surging in schools as well as city halls nationwide as hundreds of communities work to enhance the economic, tourism, and recreational value of their waterways, officials and environmentalists say.

All state's rivers monitored

Such trends are especially broad-based in Illinois, Massachusetts, and California. In Illinois alone, more than 170 schools have started monitoring river water since 1990 under a national River Project coordinated by Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Edwardsville, Ill. All the state's rivers are now student-monitored, according to Robert Williams, who directs the SIU project.

"The way to encourage stewardship for the rivers is by starting in schools like East Peoria," says Victor McMahan, director of urban river programs at American Rivers, a Washington-based environmental group.

In March, American Rivers granted East Peoria High School one of 16 national awards for restoring urban rivers.

"What makes this program exceptional is that it makes the river a hands-on educational tool. It becomes a classroom for the students - literally," Mr. McMahan says. Indeed, one day the school transported more than 1,000 students and teachers to "classes" set up along the riverbank.

By making river cleanup the focus of a multidisciplinary curriculum, the East Peoria project helps to unite the school, give traditional course work a special relevance, and spark student enthusiasm for conservation and community activism.

The project began in 1991 and has several major components, including:

*Science. Students using computerized monitoring equipment on loan from the government check the water quality of the Illinois, Mackinaw, and other nearby rivers. The data, along with findings reported by about 170 other schools, are regularly transmitted via the Internet to Southern Illinois University. From there, they go to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where they are used to supplement government data.

"Because of cutbacks, the state does not have enough people in the field," Dr. Williams says. Local watchdogging by students provides valuable monitoring data at a minimal cost.

Justin, for example, is tracking how nitrates from farming fertilizers are affecting levels of nitrogen in the Mackinaw River about 20 miles from his school. Considered the cleanest remaining stretch of river in Illinois, the Mackinaw is a focus of state conservation efforts. So far, he has found that the river's high volume and rapid flow have diluted the pollutants and kept their levels down.

Other students have researched the impact on Illinois rivers of the rapid proliferation of the zebra mussel, an invasive species from Europe.

*English. Writing assignments often involve interviews with community members and field research on river-related topics.

"When students are researching their own community, they care about what they say and how they say it," says English teacher Georgeann Siwicke.

Ms. Siwicke and 1,000 other teachers nationwide are writing a complete river-centered curriculum to be published this fall by Addison-Wesley.

River stories for kids

Siwicke sometimes asks students to rewrite their research papers imaginatively as children's books. One such book describes a trip to a planet with pristine water. Others tell the story of endangered species such as the river otter. During a riverside picnic, the students read their books and present them as gifts to grade-school youngsters.

*Art. Students sketch and paint the river, and make prints and crafts using materials from the river habitat. For example, they fashion pinch pots from river clay. Especially popular are the native American "dream catchers" they create by bending willow branches into hoops and weaving them with feathers, shells, or other natural objects found near the river.

"Incorporating art with the river makes the river experience more personal because the kids go home with something they have made," says art teacher Susan Dion.

Ms. Dion says that exposure to the arts through the river curriculum has drawn some students to her courses who previously lacked interest in art.

Each spring, a year of river learning culminates in a state-wide student River Congress and Clean Water Celebration in Peoria. Dubbed "the most important classroom in the entire United States" by Valdus Adamkus, regional director of the US Environmental Protection Agency, the unique two-day event started in 1991 with 250 students and this year attracted 3,500.

On the first day at the River Congress, about 500 high school students present their research findings to each other.

The following day at the Clean Water Celebration, the students become teachers to thousands of middle- and grade-school youths as well as to the broader community. The students set up dozens of river exhibits in booths that are interspersed with educational displays by government organizations, environmental groups, and companies.

Still, while Justin and other East Peoria students are avid river watchdogs and scientists, they are dredging up no easy solutions to the contamination in the Illinois and other regional rivers.

Flowing between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi, the Illinois has suffered decades of ecological destruction since the turn of the century, when it teemed with fish, mussels, and river fowl.

In the early 1900s, a dramatic population increase along the Illinois led to the diversion of sewage and industrial waste into the river. More-stringent water pollution laws and better waste treatment began to alleviate the problem in the 1920s

Students talk to farmers

The greatest damage to the river has occurred since the 1930s, as the rise of mechanized, large-scale farming of annual row crops like corn and soybeans has led to widespread topsoil erosion. Tons of silty sediment have choked the river, reducing its flow and oxygen levels.

"It's frustrating for the kids when they go into the fields and see the water rushing off," Williams says.

In recent years, East Peoria students have held discussions with farmers and been heartened by the growing popularity of no-till cultivation which has helped reduced soil erosion. But the no-till method requires greater use of herbicides like atrazine and threatens to put additional toxic chemicals into the Illinois.

Nevertheless, student river advocates are receiving a boost from another economic force in East Peoria: a multimillion-dollar drive to develop the riverfront.

The city of 22,000 people seeks to reverse a population decline from the loss of heavy industry jobs by promoting tourism, and hosting a controversial riverboat gambling casino. A 600-berth marina and housing complex are under way, as are riverfront shops, restaurants, and parks.

"We have a long-term interest in maintaining the river," says city spokesman Jay Thompson. "The town is very pleased that the kids have an interest in water quality."

Some seniors at East Peoria say their career choices have been influenced by the river project. Josh Thompson plans to become an architect with an emphasis on riverfront designs. Devon Schaub hopes to put her testing of well water to use in a medical job. Justin Waldsmith wants to enter the field of environmental chemistry.

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