The 2016 Howard County Watershed Report Card grades are in and student scientists throughout the school system have identified immediate action necessary to help protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
The students shared the results of their year-long watershed analysis, which showed poor schoolyard and stream conditions, Wednesday morning at the Watershed Summit at the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock.
Several ninth- and 10th-grade biology students from Howard's 13 high schools presented the work of more than 1,200 students who participated in the project.
Overall, students graded the county's schoolyards with a D-, highlighting 11 out of 13 high schools as having poor schoolyard conditions, such as leaks from Dumpsters and grease containers, invasive plants species and erosion.
Conservancy Executive Director Meg Boyd said last year's schoolyard grade was a B.
Local streams were graded with a C+, remaining the same as last year, Boyd said. Although students found a large amount of organisms this year, the report states that the overall biological rating is low, with stream bank restoration and additional sampling needed.
"[The grades] were pretty bad," said Hammond High freshman Chase Pisone. "We didn't expect the scores to be that low, but this is the second year doing it. We're still in the experimental phase."
The watershed program began in its pilot stage last year, accepting a three-year $310,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known as NOAA. Sen. Ben Cardin also recognized NOAA's B-WET, or Bay Watershed Education and Training program, on the Senate floor, catching the attention of state and county officials.
"This program, in my opinion, works more powerfully than other programs by engaging the students in the actual observations related to what we learned the conditions are," said Bart Merrick, education coordinator for NOAA.
Listening to students present the results, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said he and other officials, including Superintendent Renee Foose and Board of Education member Ann De Lacy, were shocked.
"It's sobering. It helps us realize that there are things we could do more easily than others," Kittleman said, such as incorporating no-mow zones and additional tree buffers. "While we would like to have a stronger report card, I appreciate the fact that the students are finding results that they have determined for themselves; no one is telling them to make it a little better."
Mary Weller, secondary science coordinator for Howard County public schools, agreed, adding that students have already contributed to changes in the program's biological assessment used to determine stability of organisms in polluted environments.
"The students have actually had a direct impact on the science," Weller said. "The work that they've done has been used by the Department of Natural Resources to update a biological assessment tool, which is something that citizen scientists can use streamside to help rate the health of the stream. It's been revised because the students' data showed that the old tool was insufficient."
Atholton High sophomore Veronica Adler said she was also involved in the program last year, noticing small changes in her schoolyard's progress.
With more scientific background, Adler said she and her fellow students had a better idea of what to look for during their testing. Students have also become more involved this year, she said, picking up trash and thinking of other native plants to introduce into the schoolyard.
But, she said the need to do more is still there.
"I think students focus a lot on what we could do, but no one really takes action," she said. "If students really got involved, not so much theoretically, but in actual experimenting and implementing their thoughts around their schools, it would make a bigger difference in what we're trying to do."
After releasing their grades, Diamond Benton, a freshman at Long Reach High, said she thought the grades were "fair," saying that there's always room for improvement and, together, students can create a better outcome.
"It's opened my eyes to be more aware of my surroundings, knowing that every little piece of trash or drop of water counts," Benton said. "If I see trash around, I'll definitely step up. I feel like if I can help make a change, why not?"