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Collaborative project immerses middle-school students in nature

| Monday, Oct. 1, 2012, 9:59 p.m.
Haley James, 13 (far left) Sara Pettijohn, 13 (middle) and Courtney Yoder, 13, all eighth graders at Propel Montour, look for a good spot to take samples from Nine Mile Run creek in Frick Park in Regent Square, Thursday, September 27, 2012. The students were participating in the Mission Ground Truth project, where kids use scientific methods to gather data about the impact of human activity on the environment, and about how the woodland and stream can provide ecosystem services. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Tyrai Perry, 14 (left) an eighth grader at Propel Montour looks for animal life under rocks with Bailey Warren, 23, Education Program Assistant with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (right) and Mike Fisher, 36, Math Coach for Propel Montour, at Nine Mile Run creek in Frick Park in Regent Square, Thursday, September 27, 2012. The students were participating in the Mission Ground Truth project, where kids use scientific methods to gather data about the impact of human activity on the environment, and about how the woodland and stream can provide ecosystem services. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Emily Rich, 13 and Anna Kushner, 13, both eighth graders at Propel Montour, walk up Nine Mile Run creek in Frick Park in Regent Square, Thursday, September 27, 2012. The students were participating in the Mission Ground Truth project, where kids use scientific methods to gather data about the impact of human activity on the environment, and about how the woodland and stream can provide ecosystem services. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Taiji Nelson, 23, Education Program Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, shows a an instrument used to record data about water quality to a group of eighth graders from Montour Propel school at Nine Mile Run creek in Frick Park in Regent Square, Thursday, September 27, 2012. The students were participating in the Mission Ground Truth project, where kids use scientific methods to gather data about the impact of human activity on the environment, and about how the woodland and stream can provide ecosystem services. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Tyrai Perry, 14 (far left) an eighth grader at Propel Montour looks at rocks with Bailey Warren, 23 Education Program Assistant with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy at Nine Mile Run creek in Frick Park in Regent Square, Thursday, September 27, 2012. The students were participating in the Mission Ground Truth project, where kids use scientific methods to gather data about the impact of human activity on the environment, and about how the woodland and stream can provide ecosystem services. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

Eighth-graders Haley James, Courtney Yoder, and Sara Pettijohn slosh through a muddy Nine Mile Run on a wet day in tall, rubber boots. They swing big nets to catch aquatic bugs from the stream and use a sensory stick to measure the pH of the water.

The girls, students at Propel Montour charter school in Kennedy, see several bugs — including silk-spinning caddis flies — and find the water's pH to be slightly alkaline. This is all good, and indicates little pollution.

“It's super fun; I like it,” Haley, 13, says. “It feels good to be out of school and in (nature).”

Courtney, 13, is somewhat rueful about the water that entered her boots and soaked her socks.

“Nature's not my friend today,” she says. But she still enjoyed herself and learned a lot.

Along with their classmates, Haley, Courtney and Sara participated in the recent Mission Ground Truth:21 project, which comes from a collaboration among the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Frick Environmental Center, the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University and Oglebay Institute's Schrader Environmental Center in Wheeling. The program — which had its second sessions last week after the inaugural event in the spring — gives middle-school students a chance to explore their environment like real scientists and learn about the condition of the woods and the stream at Frick Park. The kids spend half of their day studying the woodlands and half studying the water.

The students gather data that show how humans are impacting the environment, in bad and good ways, and they learn about how the woods and stream provide things like drinking water, erosion control and storm-water management.

“We're giving kids a chance to be scientists ... in their own backyard,” says Taiji Nelson, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's education-program coordinator. Mission Ground Truth:21 makes science “real and relevant.”

Marijke Hecht, the conservancy's director of education and one of the program's organizers, says she expects to continue the project twice a year, in the spring and the fall. Each session draws 20 to 30 classmates from schools including Propel Montour and Winchester Thurston School.

Mission Ground Truth: 21 expands a program that Oglebay has done for a decade with teachers in that area. Hecht and her colleagues wanted to bring the program to Western Pennsylvania and “put fresh eyes on it.” The “21” in the title stands for 21st-century.

“We had the framework and the foundation for an excellent program with really rich content,” Hecht says.

Simple pH strips that previous generations of scientists used to test the soil and water have been ,,replaced with higher-tech, computerized probes.

“We really wanted to bring in some of those technologies that real scientists are using,” Hecht says.“We thought it was really important for students to have the opportunity to use those real-life tools.”

Christy Baumgartner, a Propel Montour science teacher for seventh and eighth grades, says that accompanying the kids for this program has turned into some of her favorite days as a teacher.

“The kids are just really enjoying themselves, and learning about science and being able to apply what they're learning to science,” Baumgartner says. “They are actually doing stuff and understanding.

“It's really good to see,” she says. “I know that they're learning and enjoying themselves.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com or 412-320-7824.

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