THE CHALLENGE: Due to the changing economic factors over the past several decades, farmers in the town of Newman Grove have moved from growing various different crops in a four-year rotation, to focusing on growing just two crops – corn and soybeans, two of the most important and in-demand crops in the country. Soybean farming, while lucrative, takes a toll on the soil, contributing to a lot of soil erosion. There’s no better place to witness the effects of soil erosion than in the Shell Creek Watershed.
Agriculture and science teachers Gene Wissenburg and Mark Seier saw an opportunity to help address the erosion issue while instilling teens with a sense of responsibility for their town and their environment. From there the Shell Creek Watershed Project was born.
THE CHAMPIONS: Newman Grove science teachers Mark Seier and Karen Malmkar; Gene Wissenburg of the Shell Creek Watershed Improvement Group; Ralph Pieke, chairman of the Lower Platte North Natural Resource District.
THE SOLUTION: The Shell Creek Watershed runs right through the town of Newman Grove. The creek is an important water source for this agricultural community, and in recent years, farmers and local conservationists had noticed an increase in flooding, pollution and eroding. To better understand and potentially reverse these harmful changes, the town of Newman Grove relies on an unlikely group: a team of wader-clad, science-loving students from Newman Grove High School.
In 2002 teachers Mark Seier and Gene Wissenburg took a group of students to the Shell Creek Watershed to collect macroinvertebrates as a way to study water quality in the creek. The combination of hands-on science learning and good old fashioned playing in the mud kept the students engaged and wanting more. They went back to school and told their friends about the experience and suddenly more students wanted to get involved. The teachers realized that the project was the perfect way to expose teens to important issues in their community in a way that taught valuable lessons in science and responsibility.
The Shell Creek Watershed project has evolved into a summertime volunteer program during which high school students spend two days in each May, June, July and August, wading through the creek and testing the water and soil for various factors that can contribute to erosion and water quality degradation. Monitoring the creek annually allows conservationists at the Shell Creek Watershed Improvement Group to take appropriate measures that helps protect the water source. The student scientists wanted to understand how the Shell Creek results compared to other watersheds, so they ran the same tests on the same days at the nearby Beaver Creek watershed in the Olson Nature Preserve. They learned that due to different environmental and geological situations, Shell Creek’s erosion pattern was unique to that particular watershed.
The Shell Creek project isn’t the only example of how Newman Grove Public Schools are giving their students the chance to practice what they learn in the classroom. Inspired by their work in Shell Creek, the school struck up a partnership with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. The students are working with Elizabeth Mulkerrin (the zoo’s director of education and champion of Papillion-LaVista’s Zoo Academy Program) to test amphibians for a unique fungus that is believed to be causing their extinction around the world. The students are responsible for identifying whether the fungus has reached Nebraska by catching and testing amphibians at Shell Creek and Beaver Creek. They received training at the zoo and are acting as the zoo researchers’ “boots on the ground.”
Students at Newman Grove Public Schools are encouraged to explore the world around them, seeking answers to their questions through science. As a freshman, student Brooke Pieke became the Central Nebraska District Champion for the Nebraska Junior Academy of Sciences in Environmental Sciences. She won thanks to a project she worked on to explore the differences between soil that has been tilled versus soil that has not been tilled and the run off associated with each. She learned that putting chemicals on to the soil and having them wash away can not only cost farmers a lot of money, but it can also be hazardous to watersheds, mutating amphibians and causing all kinds of environmental issues.
Real-life learning is one of the most valuable facets of Newman Grove’s science program. In the Shell Creek project, students spend the first month of the program training new volunteers in how to properly collect and catalogue specimens. The students present their results at various events throughout the year. They speak to dozens of community and environmental groups, sharing what they’ve learned and how it is impacting their community. Not only do the participants sharpen thinking and organization skills, but they go home with the knowledge that the work they’re doing is important and valued by their own community.
THE RESULTS: Mr. Seier and Ms. Malmkar believe that one of the best results of the Shell Creek Project is its ability to get students excited about science. Whereas most science is learned in the classroom working on labs in which the answer is already known, the Shell Creek Project allows students to practice the concepts they’ve learned in class in a real-life setting. The program is so impactful that many of its alumni have gone on (or plan to go on) to study biological sciences and preservation in college.
Because the students essentially manage the program from top to bottom – training new students; collecting, testing and cataloguing results; and then presenting results to the community - the program teaches them confidence and responsibility. Their work on the Shell Creek Project becomes a badge of honor and something they – and their community – can be proud of.
- To learn more about the Shell Creek Watershed Improvement Project, click here.
To learn more about Newman Grove Public Schools’ involvement in the Shell Creek Watershed click here.
- To learn about the Olson Nature Preserve, click here.