Bridging Schools through Bridging the Watershed

By Zoe Unruh, BTW Educator Specialist  

A few Fridays ago I had a field study with Marshall High School at the National Mall. Every year the International Baccalaureate mathematics teacher from Marshall uses the Bridging the Watershed Talkin’ Trash module to collect and analyze data in a fun and engaging way. In her class, she requires the students to conduct an independent research project, and collecting data on what trash exists on the Mall provides an example of an outer box project idea – even trash can be mathematical! Before data analysis, the Talkin’ Trash module requires the collection of that data, which means that students remove several pounds of trash from the National Park. Equipped with AFF’s bright yellow and blue Potomac River Watershed Cleanup bags, the students scour the shoreline for trash left behind by tides, storms, and recreation enthusiasts.

On this particular Friday, NPS Ranger Robert Steele and I met the students at Hains Point in East Potomac Park early enough that we were sharing the park only with some morning joggers, a few songbirds, and a single bald eagle. As the morning wore on, a large group began to set up at the nearby picnic pavilion, and some high school football players were moving picnic tables and preparing the field next to us for a multitude of field games. As soon as the Marshall students set out with their bags to collect their data, I walked over to our new neighbors to find out what was going on. As much as I love running mathematical analyses of trash collection, I’m a realist. I knew that I would not be able to compete with kickball, football, hot dogs, and a DJ in the fight for students’ attention. It turned out that Archbishop Carroll, a Catholic High School in the District, was in the midst of its annual walkathon, and the finish line just so happened to be right next to our study site.

As the smell of the barbecue became stronger, I started to curse my luck as a new educator. Why did I choose Hains Point as a study site on the ONE DAY when an entire high school would be there having a party? And then three students from Archbishop Carroll approached me. They were in charge of the service club at school, and were very interested in getting involved in trash removal. They had seen the Marshall students collecting trash with their brightly colored bags, and immediately knew what they were doing. I explained the program, and how their math teacher brought them to the Mall to run an experiment. One of the students exclaimed, “Wait, so you mean they’re here for math class? Why can’t my teacher do that!!” I suddenly felt extremely cool. These students were jealous of the Marshall students in the BTW program, even amidst the Top 40 tunes blaring from the speakers and the endless amounts of chips and soda pop! I gave the students information about the Alice Ferguson Foundation, highlighting the Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup and urging them to get involved. Maybe they’ll host a site near their school in the spring. Or maybe they’ll mention BTW to their teachers. Either way, those bright yellow bags caught their attention and provided a link between the two seemingly separate events.

As BTW educators, we are always conducting field studies in public settings. How many other passersby have we impacted?