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Stewardship in Appalachia

Originally appears in the Summer 2016 issue

Worldwide, people are increasingly aware of the factors that impact the quality of their water. In rural Appalachia, many of these issues are painfully apparent. There are problems associated with agriculture such as the contamination from pesticides and nutrients and associated with daily life such as runoff from roads and litter. Also, while new industries and natural gas development can benefit local communities by providing jobs, they also raise concerns. In particular, the effects of fracking to produce natural gas (hydraulic fracturing shale rock by injecting chemically-treated water to gas) and policies about underground water and mineral rights are being questioned by many residents who have strong generational ties to the land.

Because students here play and work outdoors and often engage in subsistence hunting and fishing, their everyday lives intersect with both the economic and ecological concerns that adults face. We posited that lessons that use a place-based perspective would help teachers connect students’ lived experiences to the complex issues surrounding water quality and seek connections that help learners become environmental stewards and advocates for the health of the resources within their community.

To study how this might work, we — two researchers from Penn State —partnered with two biology teachers in a poverty-impacted high school in rural Appalachia. Together, we worked with 74 9th and 10th grade students from four biology classes. We collaborated to redevelop a unit on watersheds that focused on the water quality within the students’ community. Our intention was to work together to foster deeper place-based connections that would support the students’ learning as well as develop an action-oriented mindset towards water-related issues.

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Jennifer L. Weible is an assistant professor of educational technology at Central Michigan University. She has taught high school chemistry and physical science for over 20 years, and worked in a technology leadership role in a K-12 school district. Heather Toomey Zimmerman is an associate professor of education at Penn State University. Her professional work experience includes being a museum educator, wetland educator, and learning scientist. Contact them at and