Partnership With Schools Turns Students Into Citizen Scientists

Students monitoring stream for litter.Students monitoring a stream for litter.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series highlighting a few of the many ways county employees and agencies provide valuable learning opportunities to our Fairfax County Public Schools’ students. This hands-on experience supplements the tremendous work our teachers provide in their classrooms. Good luck to our students and teachers as they begin the 2017-2018 school year on Aug. 28!

Ecologists in our Department of Public Works and Environmental Services and students from several of our public schools are working together to monitor the amount of litter reaching our local waterways.

Called the Citizen Scientist Floatables Monitoring Program, it expands students’ knowledge of watershed science, scientific thinking skills and enables them to make connections between behaviors and environmental impacts. The county benefits from engaging residents at an early age and instilling the importance of environmental stewardship. The program was piloted during spring 2016 with great success. More than 350 students from seven schools participated during the 2016–2017 school year,  the first full year of the program’s implementation.


How It Works

Throughout the school year, students identify and quantify the number and type of floatables in a 100-by-20-foot section of a stream valley near their school. The goal of the program is to encourage students to use what they learned from their data to create an action plan to reduce the amount of litter reaching the stream.

Ecologist Danielle Wynne with big snakehead May 2017.

Ecologist Danielle Wynne leads the Citizen Scientist Floatables Monitoring Program.

“Response has been overwhelmingly positive from both teachers and students. The program is a win-win-win collaboration as it provides the county with valuable stream information, gives students an opportunity to collect real data and see how that data can be used for a scientific evaluation. It fosters the connection between students and their environment.”Danielle Wynne, County Ecologist

Unlike  “invisible” pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorous, litter is highly visible and is a great example of an easily identifiable pollutant that allows students to make the connection of a behavior (littering) to its direct impact on the environment (litter in streams). Students learn how their actions and behaviors may impact natural resources and are empowered to make better choices in litter prevention. Students are also introduced to the concept of collecting scientific data to answer questions about the environment.


Enhancing the Science Curriculum

Fairfax County Public Schools elementary curriculum encourages students to use project-based learning, which is an inquiry-based, student-driven approach to answering a compelling question. Through a hands-on approach, the program fulfills this learning objective by asking where does the litter originate and how can more litter be prevented from entering streams. County staff provide an introductory presentation to the program, data collection training and assistance with field monitoring.

“I truly value this program because so often students learn about science, but it’s not as frequently that they are able to experience hands-on data collection and distribution. This experience is priceless, as the students know that the data they collect could be used to make changes that impact the health of the environment,” says Pamela Huffman, outdoor educator, Lemon Road Elementary School.



Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services

What’s That Stuff In The Stream?

Read County’s 2017 Environmental Vision Report



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