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July 15, 2018

JCCC students gain real-world experience testing Kansas water quality through a service-learning initiative.

At Johnson County Community College, we actively look for ways to enrich the educational experience through community involvement. With this end in mind, JCCC’s Science division recently gave students the opportunity to partner with a local nonprofit through a service-learning initiative.

Connecting with Friends of the Kaw

Friends of the Kaw, founded in 1991, is a nonprofit grassroots environmental organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the Kansas River for all generations. After receiving a Johnson County Storm Water Management Education Grant to fund three “Stream Teams,” Friends of the Kaw sought volunteers for water quality testing. JCCC’s faculty were quick to respond and involve students interested in environmental science.

In February 2018, 11 Biology students and faculty members participated in Stream Team training, where they received background information on water quality issues and learned relevant terminology. They also practiced techniques for testing the water.

Then, students took part in three on-site sessions at Turkey Creek and Mill Creek, where they put their classroom knowledge into action. They tested for nitrates, phosphates, pH, conductivity, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, coliform bacteria and macroinvertebrates, all while gaining a better understanding of the scientific process, water resources and water pollution.

According to Cathy Murphy, a student participant, “I learned the signs for high phosphate levels, the relationship between high algae and low oxygen levels in the water (and thus the resulting effect on water life), and identified and categorized the water life. We were taught about the effects of fertilizing lawns, salting roadways in the winter, and dumping chemicals into the waterways.”

Gaining real-world experience

According to Lani Witters, Assistant Professor of Science, JCCC’s partnership with Friends of the Kaw has been valuable on multiple levels. “It connects our students to what we talk about in class through a real-world application. They learn the information better when they have access to that hands-on experience. Further, the students can link this experience to the community they live in to better understand where our water comes from and who has used it before. The service-learning aspect makes it bigger than the class itself.”

Murphy echoed Witters' thoughts. “This opportunity provided a hands-on application of the lessons we learned in class," she said. "It also gave us a more global view of the cause and effects of human behavior on the environment, while at the same time affirming that even small efforts to improve our attitudes and actions toward environmental issues can have a positive effect.”

The Stream Team dream

Witters and other faculty who specialize in environmental science plan to develop their own JCCC Stream Team program in the future, so students can monitor the water quality of targeted streams in the Johnson County area. The end goal? Each semester, students will contribute to ongoing data collection following a citizen-scientist model.

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