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Investigating Water Pathways in Schoolyards

Originally appears in the Winter 2012-2013issue

On an overcast day, hundreds of students make their way up the winding driveway of Baltimore City High School. As the students climb the old stone steps and enter the building, large rain drops begin to fall from the sky, splashing onto the manicured lawn, asphalt sidewalks and gently sloping roof of the school building. Puddles form on the playing fields and parking lots and gutters fill with rainwater runoff. Inside the school building, toilets flush, sinks run and store bought water coolers provide students and staff with drinking water throughout the day. On the top floor of the building, one environmental science teacher is using this rainy day as an opportunity to engage her students in a new kind of investigation: tracing water pathways in the schoolyard. Her students pull on their rain coats, grab their notebooks and school maps and head outside into the rain. For the next five days, these students are engaged in a new curriculum unit developed to enhance student learning of water cycle concepts: The School Water Pathways Activity.

Most textbooks depict the water cycle as a simple diagram consisting of clouds, mountains, streams and the ocean. These depictions rarely reflect the landscapes in which the vast majority of students live. This textbook image of the water cycle can lead students to believe that the pathways through the water cycle are simple, linear, and disconnected from their built community. In reality, however, water pathways are complex, nonlinear, and heavily influenced by human action. The goal for the Pathways Activity is to help students learn to trace water along multiple pathways and to consider the local factors which influence the volume of water that flows along any particular pathway.

The Pathways Activity is a weeklong inquiry-based lesson organized using the 5E educational model[1], and framed to engage students in answering two guiding questions:  how much water falls on our schoolyard during a year, and where does that water go?  Five hands-on explorations provide students first hand experiences with water cycle pathways and processes. Embedded in the explorations are tools for assessing student understanding of key big ideas. Students use a flow chart to explain how much water and where that water moves throughout their schoolyard based on the results of the explorations. Students then use the flow chart to elaborate on a variety of scenarios impacting water movement in their schoolyard.  Finally, a summative evaluation is completed by students to assess knowledge gained through the activities.

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Bess Caplan is the Ecology Education Program Leader for the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a National Science Foundation-funded Long Term Ecological Research Site located in Baltimore, Maryland. Kristin L. Gunckel is an assistant professor of science education in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Sociocultural Studies, at the University of Arizona. Andrew Warnock is the Director of the Natural Sciences Education and Outreach Center at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Aubrey Cano is a Microbial Oceanographer, Science Education Researcher and Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  They would like to acknowledge the educators and scientists from the Pathways to Environmental Science Literacy Math Science Partnership project (funded by the National Science Foundation DUE-0832173), who contributed substantially to the development of the School Water Pathways Activity.