Sperryville: RCES’s watershed memories

Sixty-five Rappahannock County Elementary School (RCES) sixth-graders have been participating in a four-week program to learn about watersheds, water assessments and pollution sources. It culminated March 31, with a half-day “Meaningful Watershed Experience” on the grounds of the Link, led by Stephanie DeNicola-Turner, education and information coordinator at the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District (CSWCD) and RCES science teacher Will Kulick.

Spencer Yager gets ready to show how different soil preparations shed water (or not) for RCES students at the Link last week.

Five “action stations” gave the students hands-on experience to go with what they’d been learning in the classroom during the month: Physical Assessment (length, width, depth velocity, area and temperature conversion); Biological Assessment (benthic macroinvertebrates), Chemical Assessment (pH, phosphorus, nitrogen, turbidity, dissolved oxygen), Soils (vegetation, buffers, erosion, sedimentation) and Septics.

Good bugs

At the biological station, students taught observers about macroinvertebrates, showing the presence of the very sensitive caddisflies and waterpennies. Master naturalist Ed Dorsey had an enlightening worksheet showing the different phases of life of these “critters,” which are sourced as tolerant, indifferent or sensitive. All observing and participating learned a great deal from all the volunteers that morning.

Fish kill: Read the label

DeNicola-Turner told the students a true saga about a fish kill last year, even though it was after phosphorus had been banned from use in the state. A large facility, to save money, was buying laundry detergent in bulk from out of state, not realizing that the state they were ordering from still allowed the use of phosphorus. They immediately corrected the situation; but this shows how sensitive we must all be to reading ingredients.

No soil erosion needed

CWSCD’s Spencer Yager used a hands-on experiment of soil preparations — plain/turned, planted and dead stalks left on the soil. Using water cans, the students learned that “nutrients are money” and that too much fertilizer in poorly prepared soil runs off into the watershed, and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay.

Customized curriculum

CWSCD designed this curriculum consisting of five lessons covering chemical, biological, soil erosion and septic issues, and how they are applied in the community. Using the Rush River near the school, classroom studies included a virtual tour using topographical maps, compass and road maps of the county and state.

The students experienced an incredible interdisciplinary program using their skills in math, science, English, spelling and history. Their comments at the end of the program included “awesome!,” “Learned a lot” and “had fun.”

They were tested twice — at the beginning of the program to see what they knew prior to starting, and again at the end of last week’s program at The Link.

The results: Before, the sixth-grade class average was 57 percent.

After: 79 percent! That’s the whole class’s average, just one point shy of 80 percent, which spells mastery for the entire grade. Congratulations!

Only gas needed

RCES and CSWCD, DeNicola-Turner said, wanted to thank Cliff Miller and RNPC for the use of the Link and its surrounds; and special thanks to all the volunteers without whom none of this would have been possible: master gardener Linda Murphy, master naturalists Becky Barlow, Carolyn Thornton and Ed Dorsey; Cindy Crook (ORMN), Louise Bondelid (RappFLOW), Dana Ernst (Natural Resource Conservation Service), Jenny Kapsa (Cooperative Extension), Spencer Yager, (CSWCD), Medge Carter (Virginia Department of Health), David Naser (RCHS) and Trista Scheuerlein (Farm to Table). The only expense, she said, was the gas for the schoolbus!

The county is lucky to have Stephanie DeNicola-Turner as the CSWCD education coordinator. She is from Queens and has a degree in English with a concentration in education. She has been highly trained in the sciences by the CSWCD and related organizations.

Scholarships go unused

An important aspect of the CSWCD is the granting of scholarships throughout the year, many of which go unused due to lack of applications. There are academic scholarships and summer camp scholarships (two students to the Forestry Camp at Holiday Lake 4-H Center and two students to the Youth Conservation Camp at Virginia Tech). For more information on the academic and summer camp scholarships, please go to www.culpeper.vaswcd.org.