Watercourse has kids doing adult science

By DANIELLE MARTIN/Montana State News

Stephanie McGinnis has a large, faded blue folder on her desk. It is held together with a rubber band and stuffed with an assortment of papers, CDs and packets.

Students in the Swan Valley take water samples for a Montana Watercourse project (photo courtesy of Diann Ericson.
Students in the Swan Valley take water samples for a Montana Watercourse project (photo courtesy of Diann Ericson.

As insignificant as it looks, this folder represents ten years of water quality data for the Swan Valley, one of the largest and most continuous collections in the state. Even more interesting, the data was collected entirely by elementary and middle school students.

McGinnis is the education and outreach coordinator for Montana Watercourse in Bozeman. This grant-funded nonprofit coordinates the Volunteer Water Monitoring program (VWM), a program that trains participants to routinely perform water quality testing in their area. According to the training manual, this is so that “they may make informed decisions regarding local water quality issues.”

“It’s really important for these young students to get out there and collect the data, [and to] understand what water quality is, [and] why water quality is important,” said McGinnis.          

Led by the Watershed Education Network and the Swan Ecosystem Center, students in the Swan Valley began water quality monitoring in 2002. Twice a year, kids between the fourth and eighth grade go out to the Swan River, Glacier Creek and Elk Creek for field work and data collection.

“Its field work, not a field trip,” said Diane Ericson a retired educator with the Swan Ecosystem Center. “They’re doing adult science work. They love that.”

In addition to learning how to make basic observations about a stream’s quality, they collect numbers for air temperature, water temperature, PH balance, dissolved oxygen and water transparency, all of which are important indicators of a stream’s health.

McGinnis explained that this routine testing of our rivers and streams is extremely important so that we can establish a baseline for Montana water quality.

“That’s why I’m excited about this data. Because we have such a big span of it over time, maybe some of those figures [will] show a trend,” said Ericson.

Once the data is collected, it is entered into an online database that she says is used by watershed groups, realtors, planners and educators. They stress that their information is unbiased and available to everyone.

She explains that without a baseline, we will not know what positive and negative effects humans have on the pristine Montana streams we all rely on for drinking, irrigating and recreation.

“The students get excited knowing their data will be on a data base.  It will be fun to show that to them when that data is entered,” said Ericson.

The data itself is important, but the program’s benefits expand beyond that area. “Students learn protocols they will find useful in other science classes as they advance through high school and beyond,” Ericson wrote in a press release she issued about her program.

“And you know what the most valuable part of this is? Getting the kids outdoors,” said Ericson. “[It’s] a real valuable way to get students out on the land and involved in our natural resources.”

The Swan Ecosystem Center will continue to do field work with students and concerned citizens this spring. If an adult wishes to get involved, McGinnis also said that there are local groups such as the Gallatin Watershed Council who are doing the same testing around Bozeman.

– Edited by Clark Moorman

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