In May, IslandWood hosted “Seattle Stormwater Systems and At-Home Science Learning,” a virtual workshop for teachers, in collaboration with Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) and with funding from King County. The workshop brought together teachers for an afternoon of sharing resources, generating lesson ideas, and learning about Seattle’s stormwater issues and infrastructure.
The problem of stormwater—how to keep polluted runoff out of our waterways—has been the context for much of our urban science programs, and for good reason. We know that students engage with science more deeply when the subject relates to their lives. And just about every student in the Puget Sound region has had to contend with a flooded parking lot, a beach closed due to a sewer overflow, or some other symptom of an overburdened system.
However, stormwater is more than a simple inconvenience, but a situation with urgent environmental implications. Our day-long field studies and fourth-grade science unit, “Community Waters,” present stormwater runoff as a problem that can be explained with science and solved with engineering, urban planning, and changes in behavior.
With schools closed in response COVID-19, we’ve discovered that stormwater has another advantage—it is as relevant and visible at home as it is at school. In Seattle, students’ schools and homes exist within a large and labyrinthine stormwater infrastructure, involving 485 miles of storm drains, 386 miles of sewage pipes, and 43 miles of creeks. Schools and homes alike add to the load with runoff from their roofs, sidewalks, and other impervious surfaces. And both suffer the flooding and contaminated wetlands that result from shortcomings in the system. For teachers who want to connect their remote lessons to stormwater, there are sites to investigate close to students’ homes and of course, rainfall to be monitored everywhere.
The IslandWood workshop opened with a presentation on stormwater by Beth Miller, SPU Program Manager for K-12 Stormwater Education. She began before the founding of Seattle, when 78% of rainwater was absorbed by trees and the rest taken up by aquifers and bodies of water, and ended in present time, when 60% of the city is covered by impervious surfaces leading to our current problems with runoff. In small groups, teachers generated ideas for connecting stormwater phenomena to classroom curricula, such as using online stormwater data to teach math and statistics and asking students to observe a puddle over the course of the day to learn about evaporation.
Among the many resources shared with participants was an IslandWood-designed scavenger hunt. The activity directs students to find downspouts, storm drains, ditches, and other features of stormwater infrastructure, as well as trees and ponds, and to assess their role in speeding up or slowing down rain and snowmelt—a great way for students to see how their neighborhoods fit into the built and natural environments.
With COVID-19, our day programs were suspended and schools have closed, but our partnership with Seattle Public Utilities proved nimble, and we were able to work with teachers in a new arena—distance learning. If you missed this workshop and are interested in learning more about how you can integrate stormwater into your curriculum, keep your eye out for future workshops, and check out the IslandWood stormwater scavenger hunt.