June 6, 2008

Meade Memorial Elementary School 3rd and 4th graders received firsthand knowledge about water and water quality issues in their communities as they “transformed” into water molecules and traveled through the water cycle in Johnson County during the program H2O and Beyond. The water education program at the Van Lear Historical Society and Coal Miner’s Museum was developed by the Johnson County office of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. Youths pieced together puzzles, looked at aquatic life through microscopes, conducted experiments and examined models as they visited various stations during their journey through the water cycle. “We want them to understand and respect their environment,” said Brenda Cockerham, program coordinator and Johnson County family and consumer sciences extension agent. “Each station was designed to be an interactive experience to help them understand what water goes through and the role it plays in the community, our bodies and the environment.” Museum representatives, environmental educators and professionals from the Cooperative Extension Service, Big Sandy Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D), and the Johnson County Conservation District led the stations. These stations allowed students to develop a better understanding of their watershed and their roles in it. “It’s a wonderful team effort, and we really enjoy doing it,” Cockerham said. “We feel like it’s impacting the youngest ones of our society who can grasp these abstract concepts.” H2O and Beyond has been offered in Johnson County for the last seven years. It began as an idea from one of the extension service’s steering committees, whose members suggested extension do more programs for youth to help them understand and become familiar with problems that affect their communities. The program has been partially funded through an education grant from Personal Responsibility In a Desirable Environment (PRIDE). Johnson County is in the Big Sandy River Watershed, which includes portions of West Virginia and Virginia. Christie Cook, environmental educator for the Johnson County Conservation District, said water quality is relatively good in Johnson County. “It has been my experience in testing that a lot of our creeks are really very fine,” Cook said. “The few times that our creeks have come up bad leading into the Big Sandy or the Levisa Fork have been because of a septic tank failure or large facility failure. Usually, once the responsible party finds out that there is a failure, they tend to try to rectify that.” One of the big water quality issues the county is working on improving is switching rural residents from well water to a municipal water system and educating individuals in better practices to protect water quality. Cook said educating youth about water quality issues will help eliminate common practices of the past such as pouring motor oil on dirt roads to keep the dust down or burying garbage on personal property. “We’re not laying blame if Grandpa still does it that way. It’s just that now we do it differently,” Cook said. “If we give youth the reasons why they need to do it better and help Grandpa do it better, then I think everything is just going to get cleaner.” Cook said she tries to help students understand that their environmental decisions affect others, not only in their communities, but nationally. As an example she used the water in Miller’s Creek, which flows through Van Lear. Miller’s Creek is a tributary of the Levisa Fork, which is a tributary of the Big Sandy River. The Big Sandy River flows into the Ohio River, which empties into the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. “I showed them that they live in all of these watersheds, and what they do here really does affect the people in New Orleans and the ocean life,” Cook said. “So we may seem very, very far away, but it terms of a drop of water, we are not.” Cockerham said the program has had incredible success. By conducting pre- and post tests with the young people on their understanding of water and water issues, it was found that they have learned 80 to 90 percent more than what they knew before participating in the program. Meade Memorial 3rd and 4th grade teachers Jo Chaffins and Barbara Ware said the program has been an educational experience for them and their students. “I think they’ve learned a lot about the water system,” Chaffins said. “As a matter of fact, I’ve taken all kinds of notes, and we’re going to go back and do a portfolio piece for next year.” “I think they’ve learned a lot, especially about the water filtration system and sewer treatment,” Ware said. “I think that’s something we need a lot of insight about.”