Not all chemistry is learned in a lab. Sometimes answers are found by wading into a creek.
That is one of the lessons Montgomery County hopes to impart on local high school students by transforming a portion of Rock Creek Park and its surroundings into a hands-on chemistry classroom this school year.
The program, announced Thursday, will reach 1,500 students over the next three years, according to the county.
Starting this fall, students at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring will become “citizen scientists,” monitoring water quality in the Rock Creek watershed — an area that spans 60 square miles of the county. Students will collect and analyze water samples from the park and their local community.
“Instead of teaching about the watershed within the classroom with pen and paper, students can actually go outside right in their schoolyard and study creeks and streams firsthand,” said Diane Lill, director of education at the Audubon Naturalist Society, based in Chevy Chase, which will help facilitate the program.
Bethesda-based Veverka Family Foundation is giving $1 million to the National Park Foundation to fund various science education programs. The new one in Rock Creek Park will receive $100,000 of that funding.
Under the training of chemistry teachers, local environmental experts and park rangers, Montgomery students will create a database of water-quality measurements. Students will then analyze their findings to identify areas in need of attention. The absence of certain organisms, for example, could indicate pollution, Lill said.
Montgomery officials say they will expand the three-week program to Northwood and Albert Einstein high schools in 2018-2019 and to Wheaton and Montgomery Blair high schools the following year. Their goal is to eventually integrate the curriculum into chemistry classrooms countywide.
The program comes as the county is developing lessons based on state science standards adopted in 2013. Under the standards, students are expected to approach environmental challenges with content knowledge and critical thinking skills.
Students will also need a strong foundation in chemistry to do well on Maryland’s science assessment, school officials say. By 2021, students will need to achieve a passing score on the test to graduate from high school.
Laurie Jenkins, Montgomery’s supervisor of environmental education, said the district will review course passage rates and test data to measure the success of the outdoor education program. She said she also hopes students will graduate from high school more engaged in their roles as stewards of the local environment.
“These students are going to become the citizens of the U.S. who will vote to shape environmental policy,” she said.
The program, called Citizen Science 2.0 in National Parks, will also take place at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northeast Ohio and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Mary Jo Veverka, president of the Veverka Family Foundation, said her first meaningful exposure to the country’s national parks came during college when she worked at Yellowstone National Park.
With her donation, Veverka said she wants to give more students the opportunity to experience the country’s natural beauty and to recognize their impact on the environment. The Bethesda resident also hopes to join students in the field.
“It was important for me as well to be able to connect with kids that I can see going to school every day, right in my back yard,” she said.