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Howard students analyze county watersheds in yearlong study

Mt. Hebron High School sophomores Sara Chernikoff and Nathan Johnson present their research during the Watershed Summit held Wednesday at the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock.
Mt. Hebron High School sophomores Sara Chernikoff and Nathan Johnson present their research during the Watershed Summit held Wednesday at the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock. (Photo courtesy Brian Roache)

Some Howard County schoolyards may have an issue with dumpster juice, but county students have the solution.

During an hour-long Watershed Summit at the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock, students presented their Watershed Report Card — the culmination of a yearlong research project, in which 800 students from across the county assessed area schoolyards, streams and watersheds.

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Ninth and tenth graders from every high school either evaluated how their school handled stormwater runoff and other issues, such as dumpster juice — fluids leaking from trash bins that flow into storm drains — or the health of county streams and watersheds and how that impacts the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Overall, students graded county schoolyards with a B, pointing out low nutrient levels and invasive plant species bordering schools, but added native plant gardens help slow the flow.

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Students gave Howard County streams a C+ health grade, citing a wide diversity of organisms found, but adding that the habitat needs improvement and more data is required for further study.

Improvements suggested for issues noted, include the planting of additional trees, rain gardens, creating composting bins, increasing composting awareness, stenciling storm drains so people understand the drains do not lead to a wastewater treatment plant, and working with younger students, so they better understand these issues.

"It was just cool to do something that wasn't in the textbook, like out of the classroom," said Sydney Krell, a sophomore at Mt. Hebron High School.

About 280 people attended the Summit, including Superintendent Renee Foose, County Executive Allan Kittleman and other school system and elected officials.

"I didn't know so many people were interested in this, I was just flabbergasted by the amount of people," said Nathan Johnson, a sophomore at Mt. Hebron High School.

The project was made possible through a $30,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

Tom Leigh, director of programs and partnerships with the Trust, called the students' work a model example for other school districts.

"I wasn't expecting to see so much strength and conviction in the advocacy side of things. They're not just 'Hey we learned that the Chesapeake is important' or 'We all like clean water,' but it was concrete ideas and plans," he said of Wednesday's Summit. "These students are really getting it."

Ann Strozyk, an environmental educator at the conservancy, said the original thought was that half of the county high schools would participate. She was not expecting every high school and the Homewood Center to sign on.

The project was broken done into four quarters, one for collecting data, the second for analyzing that data, the third for learning how to advocate for solutions to improve the situation, and the fourth for students to share their research.

Strozyk said the conservancy would love for the program to continue next year, but there is no funding as of yet.

"We are hopeful that something will come through for the fall," she said.

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The Conservancy has done stream studies in the past with studies, but this new initiative was initiated last year while looking at grant opportunities, according to Meg Boyd, executive director of the conservancy.

After following the students' progress over the year, Boyd was not only impressed with their content and research, but their poise in presenting it to a crowded room.

"They showed that they really had a comprehensive understanding of the watershed," she said.

Foose credited students for their original research over the past year, which will serve to inform county leaders on the issue.

"This summit was a great example of the vital partnerships between the Howard County Public School System and organizations like the Howard County Conservancy. Students benefit from real world learning experiences and, in this case, our environment will benefit too," Foose said in a statement.

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