How clean is the water near your school? Photo Credit: Wikipedia

University of Cincinnati water quality program turning students into citizen scientists

Key Vocabulary: water quality, environment, solid waste, liquid waste, fracking, acidity, dissolved, mineral springs, salt deposits, agricultural run-off, longitude, latitude

Next Generation Science Standards: 

  • MS-ESS3-3. Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.

Students in Eastern Ohio are turning their local lakes, streams, and drinking sources into their science classrooms by collecting data through a University of Cincinnati water quality program. The Community Outreach and Engagement Core (COEC) is part of the Department of Environmental Health in UC’s College of Medicine and has provided hundreds of water test kits across schools in Guernsey, Muskingum, and Nobel counties. The program, when fully up and running, will involve over 2,200 students from grades 5-12.

The water test kits were originally developed by the COEC to bring water quality education to students in a hands-on and engaging way. Dr. Erin Haynes, director of the COEC explained, “We want to give the students something that will empower them to learn about their local environment. We hope they will be excited about what they’re learning and see that they can be part of something really important.”

Jonathan Creek in Muskingum County, Ohio is a potential testing site for water quality. Photo Credit: Flickr

The water test kit project started as part of a pilot study conducted by Dr. Haynes in Eastern Ohio. The study addressed community identified air and water quality concerns related to the solid and liquid waste generated from hydraulic fracturing. Fracking is a process that using pressurized water to extract natural gas from shale deposits. The process has been controversial with environmental groups and has drawn concern from community members that local water will become contaminated.

The water test kit project began in February in a 7th-grade classroom at Meadowbrook Middle School in Byesville, Ohio. Students tested each water sample’s temperature, pH (acidity), and total dissolved solids (TDS). While the kits are not able to test for levels of specific substances, such as lead or chlorine, the TDS can give important information on overall water quality.

Elevated TDS can result from natural environmental features such as mineral springs, or salt deposits, but can also include agricultural runoff or industrial chemicals. It can also indicate if the pipes carrying the water are unsafe to use.

Understanding water quality and the permeability of soils and rocks are a state standard for 7th graders.

Once taken, students enter their measurements into Google Fusion, a program which can visualize the data on a map. This technology allows the students to view and analyze all of the data that has been collected by their peers.

“Google Fusion is similar to an Excel spreadsheet,” says Rachael Shepler program coordinator for COEC. “But unlike Excel, Google Fusion has mapping capabilities. What’s neat about it is when you enter longitude and latitude, it automatically makes those marks on the map.”

Fracking uses high-pressure water to extract natural gas from shale. Photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency

While currently in the pilot stages, the program has been well received by school administration, teachers, and students. The COEC was nominated by the Rolling Hills Local School District and received the Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA) Business Honor Roll Award for the water testing program. Learning how to set up an experiment, record and analyze data, and critically think are important skills for the students, both for advanced science and math classes and for future jobs. Not only are they performing actual science, but they are also learning the value of protecting the environment and natural resources.

Teachers hope that one day, these students will become scientists themselves.

Learn More:

  • You can find Citizen Science programs around you on SciStarter. You can search by location, topic or grade level.
  • Arbordale recently published two picture books featuring families participating in citizen science programs:
    Bat Count and Moonlight Crab Count. If you want a digital review copy of either or both books, email at or ask for them in your library.
  • Kurzgesant has a video that explains how fracking works in less than 5 minutes. The entire channel is a great resource, and explain a myriad of topics quickly and simply (kurzgesant is German for in a nutshell).
  • ProPublica has an entire series on fracking and its effect on humans and the environment.
  • Explore projects supported by EPA using, a searchable catalog of federally-supported citizen science and crowdsourcing projects.

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