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USU's NR Days Teaches Children About Water Quality

Christopher Campbell
Before the children looked at insects, one of their peers dressed up as one.

Last week, students and faculty from Utah State University’s College of Natural Resources led field lessons with elementary school students from around Cache Valley during something they call “NR Days.”

USU’s Water Quality Extension programs coordinator Brian Greene taught elementary school students about insects that live in streams for the first part of their lives and in the air as adults. They are called aquatic macroinvertebrates, and Greene said they are biological indicators of clean, healthy water.

“Because these macroinvertebrates have to live in the stream 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, they integrate all the stress from the environment,” Greene said. “So if the water’s too warm, if there’s not enough dissolved oxygen or it’s not good habitat, they’re not able to survive.”

Greene said this works better than doing a chemical sample, which only gives a snapshot view on water quality.

“These biological indicators, they are integrating the entire stress of the watershed over the entire period of their life cycle,” Greene said.

Water Quality Extension workers set out water tubs filled with macroinvertebrates and let the children interact with the insects. The students looked at most of the aquatic life through magnifying glasses on petri dishes, but one of the insects was big enough to hold: the juvenile stonefly, which Greene said is very sensitive to pollution.

“They are kind of like the rock star of the water quality world,” Greene said. “You only find these stoneflies in really healthy streams.”

Nancy Mesner, professor of watershed sciences at Utah State University, said a big part of the Water Quality Extension program is working with children.

“We have grown to understand that working with kids has probably some of the biggest impact long term,” she said.

The college has been hosting NR Days for 30 years now and Mesner says she knows the program is effective at teaching children.

In one study, a graduate student gave children a pre-test before they attended the event, which evaluated their knowledge and attitude towards water and the outdoors. The students were then tested twice more: once soon after NR Days and once eight months later.

Mesner says the results showed a significant increase in both knowledge and attitude.

“If you asked them at the beginning ‘Tell me about a river,’ they’d say ‘Eh, rivers are wet,’” Mesner said. “And if you asked them after this activity, ‘Tell me about a river,’ they will say ‘Rivers are cool places, and we need to keep them clean for all the animals that live there.’ That’s a big difference.”

Mesner said it is important for these kids to understand water quality because we are all responsible for taking care of natural resources.

“We have a very limited amount of usable clean water,” she said. “Once it’s contaminated, that’s that much less water that we can use. And so whether you like to water ski or irrigate or drink or just play in it, we need to have clean water.”

“These kids are going to grow up and be our future leaders,” Greene said. “They’re gonna be our legislators, they’re gonna be our teachers, and they’re gonna be the natural resource professionals who are able to take care of our environment. So we want them to have a solid base of education about learning about this.”

Tim Beech, programs assistant at the water quality extension, said he hopes NR Days gives the children a sense of excitement and adventure to get outdoors and learn about their environment.