By. Leanne Vennemeyer, science writer and communications specialist, and Camille Sowinski, Director with the Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan Internship Program
“100% chance of rain! Get ready!” shouts Hannah, a fifth-grade SWPPP intern.
While rain is always exciting in drought-challenged San Diego County, for the fifth and sixth grade SWPPP interns in Encinitas Union School District it is a thrilling call to action. As part of a year-long program, these students are trained to observe, test, and analyze stormwater runoff on their school campus and develop methods to prevent the runoff from carrying pollutants downstream to the ocean.
The end-of-year project culminates in the production of a sixty-page written Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) for each campus that meets industry standards and is presented to the School Board for approval. Students also prepare a multimedia presentation with images and videos that showcase data collected throughout the year. They share their research and recommendations and sometimes manage to persuade the School Board to fund their thoughtful resolutions.
The SWPPP Internship Program began with pilot classes at two elementary schools in 2013 and quickly expanded to nine elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school for a total of over 300 student interns. Environmental stewardship may be the subject matter, but the wild success of the program hinges on the approach. Students are “hired” as professional interns each fall and sign up to meet weekly for lunch time “staff meetings.” Expectations for behavior and respect are high but the curriculum is fluid, changing with the weather and incorporating events in the local community.
The program begins by informing the student interns about the harms of stormwater runoff and then taking them on a tour of their school campus to find the downspouts and drains. They learn about topography and watersheds. Where does the rain water go? What happens to that candy wrapper or droplet of motor oil that enters the drain? Understanding how these pollutants move through our stormwater system and ultimately end up in the ocean is next. It is not always easy to grasp how a bologna sandwich dropped in the lunch drain effects marine life, but these budding environmentalists really do figure it out.
Students are given gloves and tools and told to pry open the drains and peer inside. They learn how to make a visual observation and share their findings with their team. They are trained on taking stormwater samples at each drain while maintaining a chain of custody through proper documentation that would rival the standards of any professional laboratory.
When it rains, they are ready. The interns gather their equipment and dash out to collect samples and run tests for pollutants. They are totally engaged and seem to lose themselves in the process, developing a passion for environmental issues along the way. This is the very essence of project-based learning.
They bring the full collection bottles back to the classroom and either start testing in class or pack the samples in an ice chest and send them to the local laboratory. Is there bacteria present? Where did it come from? Why is my sample cloudy? Using their school iPads and guided by their instructors they search for answers.
These upper elementary school students are familiar with the basics of environmental science. They have been introduced to the water cycle and understand the basics of pollution, but the SWPPP Internship Program makes it real for them. They monitor five drains around their campus, including the drain under their lunch tables and one in the parking lot where they are dropped off each morning.
Non-traditional field trips add context. A tour of the local wastewater treatment plant affords a startling new view of their world. City officials lead interns on tours showcasing mitigation strategies around town to illustrate how the challenges of stormwater runoff are managed. Interns meet local professionals in jobs they can imagine having, establishing relationships and connecting the dots between what they see on their school campus, the research they are doing, and actual paying jobs in their community.
The heart of the program is allowing the student interns to come up with their own ideas for how to mitigate stormwater pollution on their campus. They work together to design solutions which they are taught to call Best Management Practices (BMPs). Students are encouraged to create educational BMPs that can be implemented immediately, such as holding an assembly on their campus, and structural BMPs, such as adding spikes on the roofs to keep away birds (and their droppings) or even large-scale projects like adding bioswales or replacing areas of parking lot asphalt with a permeable surface. With the help of a sizable grant from the California State Water Board, three SWPPP-related projects will be completed at schools in the district this year. The interns have been involved at every stage, from “supervising” the survey team as they take topographic measurements to selecting the best plants for filtering runoff to ultimately awarding a contract to the lowest construction bid.
While instructors have access to curriculum guidelines and resources, they are encouraged to let go of the structured lessons as needed and let the students set their own course. Each school site and group of students is different and the fluidity of the program allows instructors to modify lessons to meet the situation. In addition, the subject matter requires an integrated approach. The topic is Environmental Science, but students use math in the Serial Dilution Lab, employ research skills to study pollutants, work with a team to engineer solutions, and practice their communication skills when they organize and present their findings.
The instructors come from a wide variety of backgrounds and include credentialed teachers, a marine biologist, an environmental law specialist, and a municipal recycling program executive. The common thread is their passion for teaching and for environmental education.
In 2016, the SWPPP Internship Program was recognized by the San Diego Green Building Council’s Green Schools Challenge and won a prestigious award from the California Stormwater Quality Association, beating out several professional organizations and earning a chance to present at the association’s annual conference. It was the student interns who held the stage for an hour during the technical presentation. They answered a deluge of questions and were promised jobs when they graduated.
The excitement generated by this exposure has led SWPPP Internship Program founder Bill Dean to study how he can expand the program to bring it to geographically distant school districts.
“We are trying to expose these interns to a path forward that maybe they didn’t see as an option before. By introducing them to professionals in their community and teaching them how to measure and research issues on their own school campus, we are removing the curtain and maybe even changing the trajectory of these young lives by opening up options for their futures,” said Dean.
About the Authors
Leanne Vennemeyer is a science writer and communications specialist. She studied Microbiology at University of California, Santa Barbara and went on to conduct both biological and market research in the biotechnology industry. Camille Sowinski is a Director with the SWPPP Internship Program, an Instructor, and a Green Consultant, helping to manage educational sustainability efforts. Camille graduated from UCLA and Vermont Law School with a focus on environmental law.