Seattle eighth graders investigate the health of their neighborhoods

Seattle eighth graders are learning about local watersheds using sophisticated mapping software that allows them to study streams near their schools and identify pollution sources that affect them.

During the first two weeks of December, students at Eckstein Middle School and Washington Middle School learned how to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to make connections between information about local watershed geography and census data, specifically looking at income, transportation tendencies, and pavement run off.

"Working in Seattle, in an urban place, we want to show students that we don't have to go to the Olympic peninsula or Bainbridge Island to get a sense of nature," said Todd Burley, outreach coordinator of the Homewaters Project. "We're doing it in the city, with city kids. Our goal is to help kids appreciate and learn that all these things exist here."

The "Water and Community" program, a collaborative effort between the Homewaters Project and the Seattle School District, was started last year and now includes three teachers and hundreds of students. At Washington Middle School, Richard Katz spent a third year teaching his 8th graders how to address local watershed issues with geography lessons they have been working on in the last few weeks.

"It's basically local GIS in action," said Katz, explaining how his students are visualizing data. "We have looked at the differences between north and south Seattle, how many parks are in different areas, and so forth. Students are seeing the special characteristics of Seattle. There are a lot of kids who don't know a lot about Seattle as a whole."

Based on an inquiry model of education, the Water and Community program provides teachers with computer software and teaching aides to help prompt students to ask questions about issues facing Seattle's water supply.

"GIS is a way of visually showing data," said Burley. "It's mapping technology, but it does more than mapping: it helps you create maps of census data, topographical maps, land use maps. We can put in images, line up photos with these data maps, so that we can make sense of data and relate it to the real world. This is what kids at [Washington] and other schools are doing."

Students get to look at the effect that people have on the environment, using local geography and data. In Tina Gourd's classroom at Eckstein Middle School, students zoomed in on an aerial photo of the school's neighborhood. Gourd asked one of her classes to compare these satellite pictures with these aerial photos. "The photos are much more detailed but show a smaller area," one student offered.

With the GIS software program, ArcView, Gourd and other participating teachers can help students turn on various layers of data, including pollution permits that show dots for every point of pollution that the local government knows about.

"Let's find that Shell station," suggested Gourd to one student group. A tiny red dot on their map identified an underground gas tank on their map.

According to Gourd, this program is very middle school-appropriate. "As an 8th grade teacher it's very important for me to get my students to start seeing beyond themselves," she said, explaining that middle school students can be extremely self-centered and the Homewaters Project has developed a curriculum that is grounded in who students are, where they are. "They know these streams, these buildings, these roads. They totally love it."

Katz has had a similar experience. "GIS is a great model for getting a look at what's going on in the real world," he said. "More kids are excited about it, and this is what geography is really all about-the local stuff."

With the Water and Community program, Homewaters staff provides teachers with training, materials and support. Teachers are encouraged to find ways to incorporate the lessons into their own curriculum. In certain cases this means focusing less on computer-based learning. Tim Snider, 8th grade teacher at Eckstein Middle School, has only a handful of computers in his classroom. Without the computers needed to fully incorporate the GIS project into his curriculum, Snider has based most of the learning for this unit on teamwork, integrating the focus questions into a more traditional science curriculum.

Katz, like Snider, is faced with a lack of computers in his classroom. He has been able to apply the principles of the program, he said, in spite of a shortage of resources. "The school is very supportive, but without many computers we have to work in teams, which is part of what the kids are learning; Teamwork has been integrated into the watershed curriculum," said Katz. "Most importantly though, getting a chance to use GIS helps kids understand the concepts easier. They are working with tools that real people use in the real world, and they can see this. It's not just kids stuff. They are seeing first hand some of the issues facing Seattle."

The Homewaters Project, an educational non-profit organization based out of North Seattle Community College, aims to educate Seattle citizens by connecting them with the environment and their communities. The organization, formerly known as the Thornton Creek Project, was established to address environmental issues affecting the north Seattle watershed. The organization has expanded to address water pollution issues in all of Seattle.

Homewaters staff says they plan to include the Water and Community program as part of this expansion. By training more teachers every year, said Burley, the volunteer-reliant organization can continue to reach more students and more watersheds throughout Seattle.

The Water and Community program is funded through the Russell Family Foundation, who granted $15,000 to the Homewaters Project this year to improve and expand the middle school program.

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