Jessica Lilly Published

National Geographic, NOAA Grant Promotes Understanding of Watersheds

Chesapeake Bay

  A grant is equipping West Virginia geography and science teachers with tools to help better educate young people about watersheds. For one teacher, the chemical spill that left more than 300-thousand without usable water was a wakeup call of just how important this program really is.

Cherri Mitchem can remember her childhood growing up in Southern West Virginia.

“You know, I grew up near streams that were not good, the ones that you could smell before you got there, and I remember that,” Mitchem said. “But it never occurred to me that there was a way to fix it.”

Mining activity has damaged streams and rivers throughout the coalfields of Appalachia. As a science teacher at Pikeview Middle School in Mercer County, Mitchem hopes to help her students have a better understanding of watersheds and how they affect what we drink.

“Yes, I think water, especially with our students, it’s just, it’s taken for granted,” Mitchem said. “They go to the tap to get water out, but it never occurs to them where it came from, how it got there, what steps have to be taken for them to be able to drink it, and what they do throughout the school day while they’re at school can impact that same water.

Mitchem realized she needed to do more after watching student’s reactions to the Elk River chemical spill that left 300,000 without access to usable water  earlier this year. She says while students knew what was happening, they thought there was an ‘easy fix’ to the problem. It was this confusion that inspired her to explain the situation in a more practical, hands-on sense.

Thanks to the  Chesapeake Bay Science and Geography Initiative, Mitchem received a grant from the National Geographic in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The money is available for water quality field tests to groups in states that that are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. More than 150 rivers and streams  flow into the bay’s drainage basin, which covers parts of six states: New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.  

As an adjunct instructor at Concord, and grant administrator, Mitchem is preparing to share hands on teaching techniques with other West Virginia educators. 

She says one of the ways to test the influence of watersheds is through teacher workshops. 

“Part of the reason we’re taking the teachers outdoors is to give them a first-hand idea of what you can do with your students,” Mitchem says. “They can actually take the students to the streams, and we’ve also had a  workshop of how they can bring the stream to their students.”

Mitchem says that while first-hand experience is ideal – she realizes some teachers are restrained due to a lack of money. “Some schools, some areas, some teachers simply aren’t able to take a field trip to a stream. It’s just not going to happen.” She continued, “we’ve given them lots of alternatives. Alternatives where they can just use backyard,  bring the water in and do the testing.”

Robert Miller is a graduate student at Concord University. This past year, Miller along with other master’s program students collected water samples in Mercer County to study watersheds and test the alkalinity, pH and oxygen levels. Miller is also  a 7th grade teacher at Madison Middle School in Boone County. 

Miller plans to take the methods back to his classroom. 

“The lessons we’ll learn there, we’ll be able to take those back to some streams that are perhaps not so healthy and we’ll be able to make our connections there,” Miller says.

Joe Manzo is a professor at Concord University and co-coordinator with the West Virginia Geographic Alliance: a partnership between the college and K-12 schools. The geographic alliance is responsible for administering the funds from National Geographic. Manzo says the grant program helps the alliance promote better geography curriculum in West Virginia’s Public Schools.

“So our overall goal is more geography and better taught geography,” Manzo said. “And through the program, that are incorporated through the alliance, teachers have those kinds of opportunities.

Overall, 70 teachers applied for the grant money.