A common interest to gain knowledge of, and share passion for, the Chester River watershed brought together two markedly different learning institutions to advance a project that will enable students to track their home river’s health.
On a beautiful early December day, staff from the Center for Environment & Society (CES) at Washington College in Chestertown teamed with faculty from the Wye River Upper School (WRUS) in Centreville, and eleven of their high school’s students, to deploy a data collecting observation buoy on the Corsica River, one of the Chester’s largest tributaries.
This basic observation buoy—also known as a BOB—is the latest addition to the College’s Chester River Watershed Observatory (CRWO), whose goal is to connect surrounding communities to the river’s future and provide more thorough information on which to base decisions that will positively affect the river and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.
The buoy launch was a natural progression of CES’s partnership with Wye River Upper School, whose two science educators, Dimitra Neonakis and Stacey DeWitt, completed the Rivers to the Bay program with Doug Levin, deputy director of the CES and leader of the observatory. Through Rivers to the Bay, which has been funded for the last three years by the Maryland State Department of Education and NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office, the CES has worked with nearly 60 educators in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties to teach data-gathering techniques and to develop K-12 lesson plans that incorporate the observatory. By graduation, students will have a 12-year dataset, experience in building robotics and conducting field research, and a deep personal connection to, and understanding of, the Chester River and the Chesapeake Bay.
With the new buoy in place, Neonakis and DeWitt will show their students how to use the data to analyze the conditions in their “backyard” Corsica River and compare those results to the buoys located up and down the Chester River and in the Chesapeake Bay. They will measure water temperature, salinity, turbidity, pH, and dissolved oxygen, and post their data to a central, publicly accessible website. The water quality data will be augmented by the installation of five weather stations around the watershed. Ultimately, these sensors and many others will provide a dense network of monitors, collecting real-time information on a host of variables critical to the health of the river.
“WRUS is diligent in using community-based opportunities, and the learning goes deeper if students can see their work in the context of a real situation,” says Neonakis, who also notes that WRUS students were a part of Levin’s presentation to the Corsica Implementers group. “This project included our students interacting with the multiple government and non-profit agencies that are working to protect the Corsica River.”
The vision to see the Wye River Upper School align with opportunities offered by the College was that of a friend of both, Virginia “Jij” Duffey. A staunch steward of the watershed and, at the time, a WRUS trustee, she began talking to personnel at the school and College.
“There are innumerable possibilities for partnerships between non-profits. We all have visions and good suggestions, yet not as many actually form. Jij pursued this one and helped to make it happen,” says Chrissy Aull, executive director of WRUS.
With support from WRUS grant funders, Bruce and Mary Ellen Valliant of Raymond James Financial Services in Chestertown, Aull dedicated a small portion of a Raymond James grant to CES to underwrite half of the cost of the Corsica buoy. The remainder was funded through the Maryland State Department of Education and the CES.
Through Maryland Department Environment permitting processes and fabrication delays, the school and College eagerly awaited delivery of the buoy. Within days of its completion, Levin welcomed WRUS students and teachers, Jij Duffey and her husband Stoney, Bruce Valliant, and Myron Richardson, representing the Corsica River Conservancy, on board the Callinectes, one of Washington College’s two research vessels. The 15-foot BOB lay centered on the aft deck, clearly the focal point of the gathering.
A short ride down the Chester, a left turn into the Corsica, and the Callinectes arrived at the buoy’s position, about a mile-and-a-half downstream of Centreville wharf. Three men and an anchored tether carefully guided the BOB, now bearing the WRUS logo, into its new location, prompting applause from all on board. Within minutes, Levin, who was eagerly watching his mobile device, announced, “We have data,” and another round of cheers erupted.
“We are so happy to be a part of the plan to take collaborative learning between higher learning institutions and colleges and the Wye River sciences program,” says Mary Ellen Valliant.
“This buoy is a critical part of a growing network of buoys, improving our understanding of the glorious Chester River,” says John Seidel, director of the CES. “CES and Washington College are delighted to partner with Wye River Upper School and the Valliants. This is a win for the kids, a win for the environment, and a win for all of the rest of us.”
When the CRWO is complete, it will support a series of buoys, monitoring stations, research vessels, and autonomous craft that will record a wealth of data about the river, from its headwaters to its mouth at the Chesapeake Bay, several times a day, every day. Coupled with monitoring of variables such as weather events, fish migrations, and land-based factors including agricultural and urban water management practices, the data will be accessible to schools, citizens, agencies, organizations, and scientists through a publicly accessible website developed in partnership with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Association Coastal Ocean Observation System (MARACOOS). In the coming year, monitors will be installed in public areas of at least 10 local schools that will show the changing conditions of the water throughout the day on “buoy TV.”
Founded in 2002, WRUS is an independent high school serving bright, college-bound students with learning differences. With enrolled students and staff from east and west of the Chesapeake, the Bay and its estuaries strike a common chord with the entire WRUS community.
Created in 1999, Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society promotes interdisciplinary learning, research, and exemplary stewardship of natural and cultural resources. Its primary objective is to support the integration of ecological and social values.