Creeks serve as outdoor classrooms

Tuscola High School student Tieraney Stewart and Jerry Miller, professor of in the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resources at Western Carolina University, measure the gradient of the stream channel along Raccoon Creek in Haywood County as part of a project to develop a new, hands-on high school science curriculum.

Tuscola High School students participating in a project between their school and Western Carolina University are learning while they get their waders wet in regional creeks.

In early 2011, the Pigeon River Fund granted nearly $25,000 for WCU and Tuscola faculty to develop a field-based, hands-on curriculum for high school students centered on water-quality monitoring. The intent of the project was to interest students in the region’s water-quality issues while providing them with a firsthand understanding of the collection, manipulation and interpretation of scientific data. WCU faculty members helped install water-quality monitoring equipment along Richland Creek and its tributary Raccoon Creek in Haywood County.

Now nearly half a year into the project, students from eight classes at the school have been collecting data on the waterways, part of the Pigeon River Watershed. Three of Suzanne Orbock Miller’s ninth-grade earth and environmental science classes regularly visit sites along Raccoon Creek to collect data on water flow characteristics, chemistry, channel shape, atmospheric conditions, sediment and “macro invertebrates” – also known as bugs and among the most popular of the data-collection stations, Orbock Miller said. Students in Sharon Flowe’s earth science classes collect data along Richland Creek, and Mark Ethridge’s advanced placement environmental science classes also have incorporated waterway visits into coursework. Stephen Atwood’s biochemistry students will analyze collected data beginning this spring.

From the data collection process, students are learning about consistency in reporting, correct field techniques, how to read the various instruments, take measurements, how to sharpen observation skills and more, Orbock Miller said. “They are learning how to take good field data, and that’s very difficult. There are lots of variables out there,” she said. “It’s amazing what they can get done, especially since the weather has turned colder.” Students will analyze their data when they study surface water in early spring and finalize their results in a report at the end of the school year. The goal is that by collecting their own data, students will better understand how scientists evaluate and model natural systems.

The water-quality curriculum, due this summer, will be available for use by any high school science teacher, although the curriculum is specific to the Southern Appalachians and would have to be adapted for beyond the region, said Jerry Miller of WCU’s Department of Geosciences and Natural Resources. “We hope that more high school students have access to the curriculum and more high school teachers start implementing it,” said Miller, husband of Tuscola’s Orbock Miller. “The goal is to get students outside and have them get firsthand experience with water quality – develop an interest in it and maybe study it in college.” The preface to a draft curriculum states that students learn best when “actively engaged in the exercise.”

Project coordinators have several goals as they create a curriculum, including connecting multiple science courses; offering students the opportunity to work at the same sites long-term; and promoting student engagement in data manipulations and interpretation. The curriculum also will “combine the use of simple data collection methods with more sophisticated, computer-based methods,” according to the draft, with the intent of capturing “students who are tuned into the digital age, and to challenge more advanced students who have a solid understanding of mathematical principles.”

The project, titled “An Experiential Student Training Program in the Collection, Manipulation and Interpretation of Water Quality Data,” was developed after data collected by WCU’s Institute of Watershed Research and Management, which Miller directs, indicated most water quality-education in Western North Carolina focused on kindergarten through eighth-grade students. Meanwhile, water-quality education in high school lacked detailed discussion of how water quality data was collected by professional organizations and how and why physical, chemical or biological processes vary through time.

Miller, WCU’s Whitmire Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science, has more than 20 years of experience in water-quality analysis. He is vice chair of the science advisory panel for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, a panel formed to provide input on mitigation and quality of aquatic restoration projects. The Millers are the authors of a textbook on contaminated rivers.

For more information, contact Miller at or 828-227-2269.