Each Monday right after school, five students file into Deborah Pounders’ biology classroom at Columbus High School for a special project they’ve been working on since August.
Moments after arriving, the students change their shoes, first wrapping their feet in plastic sacks before donning rubber boots Pounders keeps under a table in her room.
If the water isn’t too high, they spend the next two hours traipsing through Magby Creek — conveniently located across the street from the school beside Pounders’ mother’s home — where they measure the pH and conductivity of the water and try to trap some of the critters living in the muddy creek. Then they record the data.
The students do this for fun, for experience and legitimately in the name of science — they share their results with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, among other things.
None of it, though, is for a grade.
“It’s an extra-curricular activity, but I’ll tell you what they do get, though,” Pounders said. “It’s going to look great on a college resume. Most students don’t have the opportunity to do field research like this over an extended period. … Most are doing (more limited) experiments on things that they already kind of know what the results are supposed to be.”
Senior David Alvarez, along with juniors Hunter Brooks, Tori Savores, Amiyah Porter and sophomore Wynter Brooks call themselves the “SMART Kids,” named for the Stormwater Management Research Team (SMART) grant the school received from the National Science Foundation to fund their program.
So far, they have tested three spots in Magby Creek, finding the water there to be healthy despite their first impressions of the mud and smell, and now they are studying the Luxapalila Creek.
The students use sensors attached to poles to collect water samples, with readings then processed directly to an app on their cell phones. They use nets to capture macro-invertebrates, which they can reference to help determine water quality. For example, the presence of mayflies and riffle beetles indicate good water quality, while aquatic worms and leeches indicate poor quality. The students said Magby Creek’s pH of 8.5 also indicates the stream’s good quality.
Alvarez said their work is important, since records on certain waterways are scarce and it’s imperative for the public to have access to the data.
Wynter Brooks said sludging around with mud and bugs took some getting used to.
“At first, I thought it was disgusting,” she said. “Now, it’s just normal.”
How it began
The grant, administered through the University of Maine, aims to engage students from under-represented demographics — particularly women and minorities — in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Pounders, who has taught 20 years at Columbus Municipal School District including several at the middle school, learned about the grant through the Mississippi State University Bagley College of Engineering. Then she jumped at the chance to get some of her students involved. She chose five students, all of whom she had taught in either the seventh or eighth grade before she came to the high school in 2016-17.
All the students, she said, were already on track to one day attend college.
“We intentionally picked kids with some interest in STEM but had maybe not decided that’s what they wanted to study in college,” she said.
Now, she believes they are hooked.
As part of the program, the students traveled to the University of Maine for a week last June, where they learned to build the sensors used for measuring their water data points. They also were forced to work in groups from students with other states.
“It taught us to work together even when we didn’t get along,” Wynter Brooks said, adding her group argued some before coming together on their project in the end.
They learned to use the devices they built, too, taking field trips out to the waste water treatment plant, Penobscot and Stillwater rivers in Maine for testing.
In one river, Porter fell in, briefly dampening her experience but not enough to spoil it.
Savores said she “wasn’t feeling Maine at first” either. She had never been on an airplane before flying there and her ears were ringing after the group landed. Then, somehow, she was separated from the Columbus group on the ride to the university — instead riding with students she didn’t know from other schools.
By the time the week was done, though, all five students were not only ready to take on Magby Creek, they also were surprised at how much they would miss the “strangers” with whom they had been working.
“By the end I was crying when we all had to leave,” Savores said.
Building for the future
CHS’ “SMART Kids” have parlayed their knowledge into success at regional and state science fairs.
They also have converted their love of science into hopes of careers in the field.
Porter said that she’s always been interested in science, but by participating in this project, she said she would like to focus her studies on macro-invertebrates and maybe major in biological science at Mississippi State University.
For Wynter Brooks, she’s simply enjoyed working with Pounders again and becoming closer friends with some of her schoolmates.
“This is my family,” she said. “Ms. Pounders developed my love for science (in middle school), and it’s great to be in this program with her, too.”
Pounders plans to use this year’s group as a kind of pilot to develop an interdisciplinary science program next year that will include 16 students — hopefully, students much like the five she has this year, she said.
The class will be hands-on, research-based and has already received grants for weather balloons with radio sensors, to pull data from the atmosphere. It also will be for a grade.
The work of the “SMART Kids” is already helping recruitment.
“They see the (rubber) boots and they ask about why they’re there,” Pounders said of her other students throughout the day. “They see the poles and sensors and want to know about those. So, it’s sparking interest.”