RIVERDALE PARK – With clipboards in hand, a group of fourth grade students walked around their playground at Riverdale Elementary School. But it was not time for recess. Instead, the students graded their playground on how effectively it collects stormwater after learning in class that excess stormwater is bad for nearby bodies of water.
“We need to identify where stormwater runs off,” said Shawn Garvin, a regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency who visited the class.
Garvin pointed to the basketball courts, explaining to the students basketball courts are impervious surfaces which do not absorb stormwater.
“We want more surfaces where water can soak in,” Garvin said.
“Like grass?” a student asked.
“Exactly,” Garvin said to the student.
While assessing the playground, students noticed trash and signs of erosion. In the end, the students gave their playground a score of 58/100, a high D.
The afternoon’s outdoor activity was one part of a new watershed education program run by the Anacostia Watershed Society. The Environmental Protection Agency recently awarded $35,000 to the Anacostia Watershed Society to establish the “Stream Stewards” program at Riverdale Elementary and University Park Elementary. A total of 400 students in grades 4-6 from the two schools will participate in the program.
“Our goal is to develop a greater appreciation among our young people for the need to protect our waters, particularly in this case, the Anacostia River,” Garvin said.
Riverdale Elementary is a few minutes’ walk from the Anacostia River. According to Chris Lemieux, an environmental educator for the Anacostia Watershed Society, the nearly nine-mile long river collections stormwater from Prince George’s County, Montgomery county and Washington, D.C. The river’s proximity to urban areas, Lemieux said, makes it susceptible to the buildup of trash and sedimentation.
“The Anacostia River is very fast and shallow, so it’s more impacted by trash,” Garvin said.
Educating the youth about environmental stewardship is more than just raising awareness, Lemieux said, it is about making a cultural change.
“Hopefully in one, five, 10 years from now, they’ll remember this experience,” Lemieux said.
Tracy Putzel-Bischoff, a fourth grade teacher at Riverdale Elementary, said the program allows students to use what they learned in the classroom in a real-world experience.
“They learn about things like the water cycle and erosion in class,” Putzel-Bischoff said. “But it’s something they don’t have a connection with until they’re outside and seeing it.”
The “Stream Stewards” program provides hands-on instruction for students. Activities include a field study of the river and the implementation of conversation strategies. The field study involves a boat trip to the river, where students will collect native plant seeds along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. Students also install rain barrels and create rain gardens at their schools to help collect excess stormwater.
Near the end of the activity, Garvin taught the students about the negative impacts of pollution on the environment.
“Pollution that runs off into the river hurts fish and drinking water,” Garvin said.
At one point, a student asked Garvin if his job is the one he wanted as a child. Garvin responded by explaining to the student that his job did not even exist when he was a child.
“You guys are students, but you’re really teachers,” Garvin said. “You can teach people about the environment. You’re the next generation of environmentalists. You’re the leaders now.”