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Watershed Protection reports on youth outreach successes

Friday, August 18, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

Just as it does every year, the Watershed Protection Department came to present a summary of its Youth Education outreach program to the Environmental Commission. Susan Wall, who is the department’s conservation program coordinator, on Wednesday updated the commissioners on what she considered an impressive school year.

The department reached out to 109 of the 255 public schools in the city of Austin during the 2016-2017 school year. According to Wall, within those 109 schools, 18,893 students were directly involved in the Watershed Protection Department’s programs. “With a small staff we can actually reach quite a few youth in Austin,” she said.

Despite the small number of personnel, there are eight unique programs under the Youth Education umbrella. Each of the programs, however, is united by its mission to educate students about Central Texas’s watersheds, aquifers and water pollution prevention. While some programs like Hydrofiles specialize in educating students in high school environmental science classrooms, others serve a more introductory purpose by acquainting elementary students to the world of water through in-class, hands-on modules.

Wall continued through the list of programs and paused on the Earth School initiative to explain why this program was conducted solely within the walls of classrooms. She said that although it is vital for kids to experiment in nature to understand Austin water at the source and inspire them to preserve this natural resource, “we don’t have enough staff to bring everyone into the field, so we bring it into the classroom.” Despite their lack of personnel, she said that by transferring water science directly into the children’s classroom, the Watershed Protection Department is able to reach 52 more schools in the Austin area.

Additionally, in an effort to expand the reach of its educational initiatives, the Watershed Protection Department hired a dedicated team member for the Watershed Detectives program. This has allowed the program to expand to 1,466 students in 12 Austin middle schools.

Outside of the dedicated initiatives led by the department, Wall said that every year the entire department – from engineers to management – is encouraged to participate in Austin school science fairs and the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival. This year, 38 different program staff members reached students through these channels.

After highlighting the Watershed Protection Department’s successes, Wall launched into an analysis of where the department could improve its efforts to reach Austin students. She said, “We really like to offer as many programs as we can at high schools.” However, “We have found that high school is our biggest group that gets the least amount of services from the city.”

To try and bridge the gap between the number of programs that it would like to offer at the high school level and the number of services that are actively offered, the Watershed Protection Department partnered with the nonprofit Austin Youth River Watch. With this partnership, the department is able to send more students from underprivileged schools out into the field to experience water conservation data collection and analysis to help them see if it is “something they want to learn more about and perhaps pursue as a career,” she said.

At the end of the program status update, commission Chair Marisa Perales asked how the current curriculum for the program is developed. Wall responded that although they are not teachers, the Youth Education outreach team is composed of colleagues with master’s degrees in their subject area of expertise and that Wall herself has a master’s in curriculum development. Wall explained that to design and refine the program curriculums, “We’ll work on the curriculum together.”

Video still from Earth Camp courtesy of the city of Austin.

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