May 14, 2024

Students Refine Water Quality Testing Techniques

Water Quality

Two classes at the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center in Leonardtown are establishing a high-water mark for authentic learning by refining their inexpensive remote water quality monitoring kits for improved data collection and practical application in the local watershed.

Students in Dorothy Birch’s natural resources management program have transformed their classroom into a water quality testing center, allowing them to evaluate and improve data collected by the seven devices they have spent the last two school years developing and deploying with the help of community volunteers. Students in Nathan Swick and Arnold Skinner’s engineering program have used their soldering skills to aid in the assembly of a prototype turbidity sensor for the kits.

Funded primarily through two grants from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Bay Observation Boxes, or BOBs, cost about $900 each to build and currently provide continuous monitoring of parameters including: air temperature and humidity, water temperature at surface and bottom, dissolved oxygen, pH, electrical conductivity, total dissolved solids, and salinity.

To date, students have collected over a million data points uploaded to a publicly available dashboard every 15 minutes.

Comparable commercial technology often sells for upward of $20,000.

“We are working to develop low-cost water quality monitors that we hope someday will be used widely by organizations, companies, and individuals,” Ms. Birch said. “The more monitors that are deployed, the better picture we will get of water quality, and the more actionable data we can use to improve it.”

Swick added, “We feel honored to be able to be part of such an amazing project. It’s a great opportunity for the engineering program.”

The kits are largely designed and assembled from makerspace components by volunteer Norm O’Foran. Deployed in locations including Leonardtown Wharf, Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, and an oyster sanctuary, the existing devices have proved they can survive in the watershed, transmitting data for weeks at a time without the need for troubleshooting or maintenance.

The group now has four more BOBs under construction and is collaborating with St. Mary’s River Watershed Association to build eight others under the terms of two related grants sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Trust and the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance. Those devices are placed exclusively in potential and existing oyster sanctuaries.

The project teaches a range of academic skills, from wiring the circuits to calibrating the equipment to branding the kits to designing and maintaining the project website.

“Working with classmates [is] really fun, and figuring out ways to complete the soldering more quickly [is] really fascinating. It [is] also cool to know that the stuff we [do] here will make a difference in the real world,” said engineering student Aidan Wrightson.

Natural resources management student Liam Shanaman added, “I have learned that there’s a large amount of work that goes into the smallest of projects.”

But perhaps the most valuable experiences have been in the soft-skills developed during extended project-based learning, Ms. Birch said.

“Self-directed work and attention are an incredibly important part of student development. When the students are given a task that interests them and set free to do their best, they show me what creative thinkers and problem solvers they are,” she said.

Many NRM students pointed out that their BOBs work has forced them beyond the easy answers and taught them the value of working together, not just as a class, but also schoolwide. Graphic communications teacher Casy Page and her students also contributed to the project last year.

“Not many people have done projects like this, so it’s not like you can just look it up on the internet,” student Josie Clarke said.

“I have faced challenges in learning to communicate with others. It is such an important skill, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity,” said student September Fletcher.

In addition to their classroom work, this year’s NRM students staffed an information table at Calvert Marine Museum’s Patuxent River Appreciation Day, explaining their project to the public.

Last year’s students presented at a Leonardtown commissioners’ meeting, visited the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory to place their BOBs on the research pier for testing, and made multiple field trips to deploy BOBs in public places and on private docks.

Student Abigail Davis said that the best part of the project is “knowing that I’m contributing to something that has a meaningful impact on my own community.”

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