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The year of water

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By Jonna Spelbring Priester

As New Castle Public Works Director Scot Treece led a group of eighth grade students around the first lagoon at the waste water treatment plant, he pointed to garbage along the lagoon’s edge.

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“This is why you don’t flush certain things,” he said. “They end up here.”

On the lagoon’s edge? A few toy cars. But mostly? It was plastic tampon applicators. Dozens, hundreds of them. Treece told the group he once found a dog leash.

And then, there were a few tomato plants, growing a bit furtively in the October chill amid the rocks on the banks of the lagoon.

Treece explained to the students just how those plants got there — undigested seeds that passed through the human digestive track ultimately end up in the lagoon — and told the students that yes, the plants produced tomatoes.

A collective “ew” went up, before Treece calmly told the students the tomatoes were not eaten.

It was an eye-opening experience for many of the Henry County Middle School students who visited the treatment plant on Halloween as part of a school project: “A year of water.”

A multi-disciplinary project, the focus is, of course, on water.

According to science teacher Larisa McKinney, the project began because of a water conservation grant the HCMS science department applied for through the Conservation District. “It’s a substantial amount of money that has benefitted our students tremendously by supplying us with the tools to incorporate scientific inquiry and hands-on application,” she said.

Until this year, the project included water testing — the grant helps supply the materials for that — at Lake Jericho and Tommy Melvin’s farm near Sulphur dam.

This year, the school was able incorporate, for the first time, a  trip to the wastewater treatment plant, where students really put their classroom knowledge to the test.

During the field trip, students didn’t just get a tour of the plant, and learn about how Treece turns raw sewage into palatable water; the students performed some of the same tests the Division of Water conducts on a weekly basis. There, they learned the impact of decisions they make every time they flush a toilet at school — and why it’s a good idea to heed “do not flush” lists.

The year of water is about more than just science. In language arts classes, the students have read a novel about two Sudanese teenagers, separated by nearly 20 years, who face daily struggles just to find clean water.

In one experiment tied to the book, students discovered just how hard it is to carry 50 pounds of water a few feet, let alone several miles.

For McKinney, the project is meaningful, because students see how their decisions affect not just water in Henry County, but in the Kentucky River, the Ohio River, the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

“(The project is) meaningful because students see how (water) is connected to their lives,” she said. “So many times when we study or read about current events, it’s not necessarily about the surrounding area, and I think that especially with this age group and the fact that they are so egocentric, it becomes powerful when it’s close to home.”

Through the project, the students have learned about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the gigantic, floating garbage dumps that are the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the North Atlantic Garbage Patch.

Students also learned about the advantages or disadvantages of buying bottled water instead of drinking tap water.

“Hopefully, they realize how important water quality is to them, but at the same time, they become a little more aware that they are connected to something much bigger, globally,” McKinney said. “The point of the lesson is to act local and think global. We are connecting our stream quality in our backyard to the state of our oceans a continent away.”

E-mail us about this article at editor@hclocal.com.