On a warm spring day, a group of fifth graders from the John B. Kelly Elementary School huddled on the banks of the Wissahickon Creek in far Northwest Philadelphia. A college professor plunged a three-foot-long clear plastic tube into the water. One by one, the students looked into the tube. The goal: to see just how clean — or dirty — the water was.
The water testing, which was done on Earth Day a few weeks ago, was sponsored by Germantown’s Senior Environment Corps, a volunteer group of senior citizens who teach local school children about the environment. The group, a project of Germantown’s Center in the Park, is headed by David Schogel, 75, a retired social worker and Germantown resident, who has been doing environmental education for the past 13 years.
Planting a seed
“I used to take kids out of their families, but now I can bring children in here and educate them,” said Schogel as he took part in the group’s latest project one recent Friday on the banks of the Wissahickon near Chestnut Hill College. “We like to plant the seed for a healthier world.”
On this particular day, 10 senior citizens and other volunteers met a busload of fifth graders from the Kelly School at 5116 Pulaski Ave. in Germantown to teach them about monitoring the Wissahickon Creek watershed, which cuts through the Chestnut Hill campus and feeds into the Schuylkill River.
The fifth graders fanned out on the campus to take part in a number of education-based Earth Day activities. In a small field, corps members set up four primary tables with different exercises for students; students could also follow a path down to the banks of the Wissahickon for an additional station.
Two of the tables taught students to measure the levels of certain substances in water with a colorimeter, a calculator-like device capable of reading quantities of solutions such as iron, phosphate, alkaline and nitrate. Former chemist Oliver Bullock ran one of these tables along with Roland Harper, who works for the Philadelphia Water Department.
Balancing the phosphate
“Everything needs phosphate to live,” Bullock told the students. He’s been corps member since his retirement in July 2015. “Too little phosphate and nothing grows, but too much phosphate and bad things grow,” he said.
Another station focused on macroinvertebrates — tiny organisms that students had to find in separate water samples. Using plastic spoons and small paintbrushes, the youth collected samples and used magnifying glasses to identify the organisms.
Water Department educator Dottie Baumgarten ran this station, noting the necessity of keeping water clean and healthy. Maintaining a viable home for these organisms is vital for the survival of the ecosystem, she said.
“This is something that’s very important, and we should be doing this every day with school children,” said Baumgarten.
Other volunteers echoed that view.
“Some of these kids don’t get out in nature very much,” said Bob Meyer, a biology professor at Chestnut Hill. “It’s hard to tell how much they’re going to walk away with at the end of the day. So, I think just experientially it’s really good for them to ‘get dirty’ a little bit. It’s easy to talk about science in a classroom, but it’s a lot more impactful if you do it, you know, outside on-site.”
Josh Tull, a Chestnut Hill junior majoring in forensic biology, was also hoping to impact the next generation.
“It’s nice to help out,” said Tull. “I think it’s important to learn about this stuff now because the environment and pollution are growing issues. Hopefully we can educate this next generation to turn it around.”
Where does your water come from?
“Where does our water come from?” asked Drew Brown, an environmental engineer who also serves as the manager of public education programs at the college. The animated 11-year-olds shot their hands into the air to answer.
“The Schuylkill River!” shouted one student.
“The Schuylkill River, really?” questioned Brown. “So I can take my cup and go down to Schuylkill River?’
The kids responded with a resounding no. Brown was just joking with the kids, but he realized that some might have taken him too seriously.
One voice yelled, “Through a Brita filter!” and the group broke into laughter.
Brown pointed out that the first student was right. The water in that area, he said, comes from the Schuylkill River, but it is cleaned at the Queen Lane Water Treatment Plan at Queen Lane and Fox Street.
“The water that’s cleaned there serves all of northwest Philadelphia,” Brown said as he took out a map of city of Philadelphia to show the students.
He pointed at the map to create an imaginary border around Northwest and Northeast Philadelphia. Brown asked if anybody could point out the two areas in Philadelphia. A few kids crawled up to the map and pointed them out.
“Philadelphia is shaped like the letter “Y”,” said Brown as he explained how water is collected and distributed into the different zones in the city.
“What was the point of looking into these organisms?” asked Brown about the activities.
“To find out what life is in the creeks,” said one fifth grade girl.
Brown explained that scientists could judge the level of contamination in the water by studying the organisms that live in it. “We have people on staff at the Water Department who work like this every day,” he said.
Problem with storm runoff
Although scenic as it flows through one of the few remaining urban wilderness areas in the United States, water officials say that the Wissahickon Creek suffers from storm water runoff that flows into storm drains rather than percolating through the ground where contaminants can be filtered out. The water from the drains is untreated and can carry paints, fertilizers, and other chemicals into the creek, polluting the water and killing wildlife.
While the water quality of the creek has improved since the 1800s when more than 50 industrial mills lined the banks, turning out paper, cloth, gunpowder and other goods, the Wissahickon is still not safe to drink.
Schogel and the other volunteers in the Senior Environment Corps know that they will not see the day when the creek runs clear. But they hope the next generation may.
Through their work, the seniors say they are not only helping to educate youth, but also finding a purpose for their own lives. “It’s good for morale and it makes you feel like you are part of the group,” Schogel said.
For more information on the Center in the Park and the Senior Environment Corps, visit centerinthepark.org.