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Local students to evaluate watershed with help from Conservancy, NOAA

Howard County high school students will study the health of their local watershed for the next three years, thanks to a $310,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded to the Howard County Conservancy on Monday morning.

Howard County high school students are studying the health of their local watershed throughout the 2015 to 2016 school year, thanks to a $310,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded to the Howard County Conservancy on Monday morning.

"Before learning all this stuff, I don't think I would even know what kind of impact my actions daily would have on my environment, or on the surrounding vicinity of where I live," said Anvesha Mukherjee, a ninth-grader at Marriotts Ridge High School. She and her classmates studied a stream at the Mount Pleasant branch of the Howard County Conservancy and shared what they learned with local officials after the grant announcement.

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"We tested the abiotic factors — pH, temperature, phosphate levels — and those were pretty consistent," Anvesha said.

The Conservancy's Bay and Watershed Training grant will be used to fund its Watershed Report Card program, a partnership with the Howard County Public School System through which local high school biology students survey streams in various regions of the county and study stormwater on their school's grounds in order to evaluate the health of the local watershed.

"The program clearly has a significant impact on student learning and expands our science curriculum in an engaging way," said schools Superintendent Renee Foose, who spoke at the grant announcement and formerly taught high school science. "In this week alone, we have 510 students who will analyze seven streams and one school yard as part of the project."

Once the stream surveys are complete, the students will analyze the data collected with the help of Conservancy staff and webinars with experts, and formulate grades and recommendations for actions that should be taken to protect the local watershed.

"What's key about this program is that we're not just doing a one-time field trip with the students. We're working with them on a consistent basis," said Meg Boyd, executive director of the Conservancy. "We'll come back into the school each quarter and work with them as the students study the data they collect."

In the spring at an event called the Watershed Summit, students will present their research and recommendations to elected officials.

"Congress has been very engaged in grading our students, [with] testing, accountability," said Sen. Ben Cardin, who also spoke at Monday's event at the Conservancy. "What the Howard County Conservancy is doing is turning this around — the students are going to be grading us."

The Conservancy ran the Watershed Report Card as a pilot program during the 2014 to 2015 school year. All high schools, including the Homewood Center, have signed up to participate in the environmental literacy program this year.

County Executive Allan Kittleman, whose son participated in the pilot last year, praised the program for "giving these young people the idea that they're doing something important.

"It's not just an assignment," he said. "It's something that's really important for our community."

The BWET grant will allow the Conservancy to continue the Watershed Report Card program for a minimum of three years, Boyd said.

"Now we'll be able to develop the program and flesh it out, and develop materials that we can share with other counties around the state," she said.

"I think this should be continued," said Marriotts Ridge High student Anvesha Mukherjee. "If everybody's enlightened about this, it would really have an impact on the health of water bodies in Howard County, and the Chesapeake Bay overall."

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