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Stephen P. Robinson Collaboration Grant Report: St. George’s Independent School, Collierville, TN

Wednesday, March 21, 2018  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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By Will Bladt, Associate Head of School and Bill McCalin, Director of Environmental Sustainability, St. George's Independent School

Access to clean drinking water is one of the leading issues facing people on our planet today and will become an even greater concern as our population continues to grow. While regions such as the western United States, the Middle East, and southern Europe already face extreme water stress, the southern United States has yet to face this level of scarcity. We understand, however, with this abundance comes great responsibility and our water supply may be our greatest natural resource. Clean, affordable drinking water is a critical commodity that must be protected.

In Memphis, TN, the Memphis Sands Aquifer provides some of the world’s highest-quality drinking water for citizens and industry and is a critical resource for the region. There are a number of groups in our community that have a long history of working to protect and conserve the Memphis Sands Aquifer. The University of Memphis’ Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering (CAESAR) has been conducting groundwater research over the last 20 years that has focused on understanding the dynamics of the aquifer. The Wolf River Conservancy (WRC) is a regional land trust whose mission is to preserve ecologically critical land for wildlife, clean water, and flood mitigation. St. George’s Independent School has a long history of environmental education and sustainability education for students, though we have recently made that a more pronounced part of our vision through the realization of an experiential education program called St. George’s Great Outdoors (SGGO).

Understanding of the value and importance of the aquifer as a natural resource has recently been heightened amongst the citizenry, government, and industry when a natural gas-fired power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) chose to drill into the aquifer to pull water to cool the power turbines instead of costlier methods such as pulling water from the Mississippi River. Recent research by CAESAR has identified the location of specific breaches in the protective clay layer under the earth that could be leading to contamination of the water in the aquifer by pollutants from human activities on the surface as water moves from surface to the water table to the deep levels of the aquifer.

St. George’s approached CAESAR and the WRC last year to partner with our SGGO program to accomplish some important goals, including:

1.     Helping students learn about our aquifer as a critical resource.

2.     Helping students learn about the conservation and protection needs for long-term sustainability of the aquifer.

3.     Engaging our students in collegiate level scientific research around water quality, monitoring and testing so that they may develop passions and interests in the earth sciences.

4.     Challenging our students to make decisions as citizens in the best interest of the sustainability of our aquifer and clean drinking water.

The program and curriculum that St. George’s, CAESAR and the WRC are creating using the SAIS Stephen P. Robinson Collaboration Grant money is modeled after a program called GET WET! that started at the University of Maine. GET WET! is a citizen science program that partners high school students and university scientists to monitor and analyze groundwater in local environments as part of scientific groundwater studies at the university level. Through the collection of real data by students to be used by scientists in studies, students gain a deeper understanding of the authentic application of the research and are better able to understand biologic, hydrologic, geologic, and geographic systems and processes. By creating opportunities for our students in Environmental Science to participate in research and interact with researchers at the University of Memphis, students engage with the true nature of scientific research and see their own possibility in working towards careers in biology, environmental science, geographic information systems (GIS), and drilling technology.

St. George’s is using the grant money from SAIS to purchase monitoring equipment and develop educational materials that support the monitoring of our groundwater and our learning goals for students. The educational materials are focusing on general aspects of surface and groundwater hydrology as well as the specific water quality and water exchange problems being addressed in the project. Students are also developing an appreciation of the importance of maintaining a healthy environment and all that is involved. Students are learning collaboration, critical thinking, computational thinking, and real-life applications of the earth science concepts they are studying.

We began the project by inviting scientists at CAESAR and the WRC to campus to complete a site assessment and begin working on a plan to expand their current research to our campus. It was determined that our site could provide meaningful and unique insight into the water relationship between the Wolf River (a tributary of the Mississippi River that runs through our campus) and the Memphis Sands Aquifer. This initial visit led to a few iterations of a sampling protocol that would work for the geology and hydrology of our campus, and also be manageable for use by students in a school setting.

Once it was determined that our site was suitable and manageable by our students, the scientists at CAESAR drilled two shallow wells that will allow for sampling of groundwater at increasing distances from the river channel. Students in the Environmental Science class and AP Environmental have become acquainted with the sampling equipment and have begun collecting samples from the surface water and two groundwater wells. As the students have refined their technique, data can now be assessed as students collect samples. Students will sample water from the three sites on a monthly basis and will measure the appropriate parameters. This data will be recorded internally and samples will be sent to the University of Memphis where the same parameters will be measured and compared. This collaboration will yield important information for the scientists at University of Memphis as well as develop a long-term sampling regimen for our property in order to monitor water quality and promote environmental stewardship.

This collaboration between a university, a land trust, and an independent school to deeply enhance student learning by allowing our students to participate in an authentic scientific study is one example of how independent schools can positively influence the learning about environmental sustainability for their students. It is also one of the ways that independent schools can differentiate themselves from other schools by identifying things that they can provide to their students that other schools cannot provide or provide nearly as well. We are grateful for the SAIS Stephen P. Robinson Collaboration Grant as it allows us to build and maintain this program in perpetuity for students in our environmental science program.

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