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West Jordan Journal

Water quality education creates ripple effect

Apr 15, 2020 05:03PM ● By Jet Burnham

Team advisers Amy Pace and Lora Gibbons, with team members Kristina Watson, Kate Watson, Gavin Grose and Kate Larson, aim to educate young people about how their choices affect local lakes. (Photo courtesy Mind Over Media PR.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

A team of five high school students are determined to rid Utah of harmful algal blooms that wreak havoc in local salt and freshwater ecosystems. After two years of trying to find a scientific solution, they decided educating the public would have a more immediate effect.

“People in Utah who are really contributing to the issue, they're not aware of the severity and how they are affecting those bodies of water,” Kate Larson said. “And so we figured, why not educate them and enable them to make a difference with us?”

Krissy Watson, Kate Watson, Kate Larson, Alexander Atkinson and Gavin Grose call themselves the Conservation Catalysts. Living in various cities around the state, they have worked together on the project in-person and virtually, as students of Mountain Heights Academy, an online school. Their aim is to raise awareness about water contamination caused by fertilizers, pesticides and pet waste that inadvertently leaks into local water systems.

To spread their message of simple behaviors that make a big impact on water quality, the team created an app, a website and instructive social media posts.

Much of their solution focuses on educating young people. They developed an elementary school curriculum with games, stories, songs and activities to get kids excited about making a difference in their community with environmentally safe habits.

“When a kid is excited, they might go tell their parents and their friends, and it'll create, as we like to say, a ripple effect, where one person can make a whole community change,” Kate Watson said.

The curriculum has been distributed to schools, universities, bookstores and libraries. It is available in digital format on an open educational resource and on their website.

“We mostly focused on the outreach and getting as many contacts as we can and spreading our influence as far as we possibly could,” said Alexander, who also translated the curriculum into Spanish.

In February, the Conservation Catalysts presented their curriculum to the Utah Lake Commission technical committee. The scientists and professionals working to address nutrient problems in the lake were impressed with the presentation. They added the students’ curriculum to their educational outreach program.

“They took legitimate science, and they interpreted that into a digestible guidance for young people to get involved in,” said Eric Ellis, executive director of the Utah Lake Commission. “If you really want to make a difference, you've got to find ways to get everybody involved. They did a great job of figuring out ways to get everybody involved.”

Ellis said the team’s plan will be effective because promoting simple changes will be more successful than asking residents to make huge, unfeasible lifestyle changes.

“In my ideal world, that's the way we address environmental issues—one bite-sized piece at a time,” he said. “These are reasonable improvements that we can all do that, if everyone did it, would make a big difference in the world.”

The Conservation Catalyst team encourages simple changes to prevent excess nutrients from getting into gutters and the storm drains that eventually contaminate freshwater systems:

·         Dispose of lawn clippings and yard waste in the garbage can.

·         Avoid using nitrogen and phosphorus-based fertilizers.

·         Pick up after your pet.

“In a community, we're all connected,” Kate Larson said. “And so, if we have these small actions that we are doing to help eliminate this problem over time, then eventually it will really make a huge difference. That’s our mission as Conservation Catalysts.”

The students documented their research and solutions to enter the Lexus Eco Challenge, a contest for students in grades 6-12 to create a plan to tackle environmental issues in their communities. The Conservation Catalysts advanced to the finals of the nationwide contest, winning $10,000. They now are awaiting the announcement in mid-April of the winners of an additional $30,000. Another Utah team, the Fanplastics from Olympus Junior High, is also a finalist.

Team adviser Lora Gibbons said the project has gone beyond learning, earning a grade or even winning a contest because after the contest is over and the students have graduated, their curriculum will continue to be used.

“What they've created is a lasting impact,” she said. “It's not something that will end with the project. And that was really what they wanted to do when they set out. They knew that it's hard to solve the problem of cyanobacteria or harmful algal blooms. But what they can do is they can create something that teaches and inspires. And that's what they've done and it will continue well beyond them.”