Fifth-grade students at Sierra View Elementary in Chico, Calif., along with teacher Emily Akimoto, took fifth place in the 2021 Cal Water H2O Challenge for their efforts to research and inform local environmental and leadership groups on the health of their water system, with the hopes that actions to clean up any unhealthy watersheds would be pursued. They took home a $500 grant for the classroom and a Cal Water prize pack for each student.
The Cal Water H2O Challenge (challenge.calwater.com) is a collaboration between California Water Service (Cal Water), the California Association of Science Educators (CASE), and DoGoodery. The free, project-based competition invites fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade classrooms in Cal Water service areas to develop and implement solutions for local water issues. During the pandemic, Cal Water evolved its model to help bring students a project-based learning opportunity, bearing in mind the limitations of distance learning. For the first time, students were able to focus on designing a water solution, in order to make the challenge more equitable and accessible amid coronavirus restrictions.
For their project, “Watershed Wellness,” students focused on researching their local watersheds to see if they were polluted. Due to recent events including the Camp Fire and the North Complex Bear Fire that went through Butte County last fall, the students wanted to take action and find a definitive answer concerning the health of their creeks. After gathering extensive research, they reached out to different organizations to inform them about the health of their watershed and encourage leaders to take action to protect it. One of their city council members responded that she would keep their study in mind for future decisions about their waterways.
When describing the Challenge, Akimoto explained how the project really inspired her students despite an otherwise difficult school year due to COVID-19. “This project could not have come at a better time for my students. Watching them push through something so difficult and feel like they have some control and can persevere is worth everything. While learning has been difficult this year, the knowledge that they have gained about our local watershed and how to protect it has been something that has stuck with all of them,” Akimoto said. “Even more importantly, the feeling that things will one day be normal again because we could do this project has boosted my students’ morale more than I can say. It has, by far, been the biggest highlight of their year.”
Despite the unprecedented challenges this year presented, by integrating water conservation, educational programs, and school curriculum, DoGoodery, CASE, and Cal Water’s partnership transcended distance learning and provided a space to connect with students and bring STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, and Math) and NGSS (Next-Generation Science Standards) into the virtual classroom.
“Ms. Emily Akimoto’s fifth-grade students’ commitment to protecting local watersheds is inspiring,” said Ken Jenkins, Cal Water’s Director of Water Resource Sustainability. Regarding the impact of this year’s competition as a whole, Jenkins said, “They also showed that our next generation’s ability to discover and develop solutions to water issues, even during difficult times, will help provide a better future for the communities we serve.”