Students from Krystal Brown's Environmental Science class at Gunnison High School collecting benthic macroinvertebrates near Gunnison, Colorado, Fall 2021.

Overview of the Curriculum

SCAPE (Sustainable Communities and Place-based Education) is an environmental education project that combines online learning with field observations linked to “living classrooms” across the Mountain West. It encompasses the two largest watersheds in the American West—The Colorado River Basin and the Columbia River Basin. The program builds on EPA recognized environmental education (EE) curriculum design guidelines and workshops, and provides opportunities for science teachers to learn both the science of water quality and best practices for EE. SCAPE-trained teachers introduce high school students to stream and river hydrology, methods for measuring in-stream flow, and techniques for testing water quality. The program provides specific training in EE pedagogy as related to real-world problems—in particular, water quality and supply—and will give our partner teachers the tools and methods to move from knowledge to action.

Unit 1: Preparation. In class, students engage readings in environmental history, policy, and ethics, with special emphasis on water across the Mountain West. They use pre-defined SCAPE maps to investigate a stretch of river near their school and use the SCAPE custom interface (text mark-ups, points, and polygons) for their living classroom. Students develop hypotheses regarding water quality above and below their chosen site, and use local sources (photographs, oral histories, data from local water boards or USGS databases) to understand historical flows, key water quality parameters, and uses of the river. Household water use logs help students quantify personal use and identify the pollutants they discharge. Students create a model of how individual water use contributes to community and regional water use, and utilize the model to demonstrate how individual actions may affect the regional water supply.

Unit 2: Field Work. On their river site, students make observations, measure water flow, measure chemical and physical water quality, and survey biological indicators (microorganisms and macro-invertebrates) of water quality at sites above and below their hypothesized source of pollution, as developed with online maps. With the help of trained teachers, students conduct standard water quality measurements using both traditional and digital instruments to evaluate basic water quality parameters (e.g., temperature, salinity, water clarity, and pH, as well as chemical species such as dissolved oxygen and nitrates).

Unit 3: Analysis. All water quality data, photos of identified insects and water samples, hand-drawn illustrations, and field notes are uploaded to the SCAPE website via custom forms. This data is automatically translated into Google Spreadsheets and posted to a secure website. Measurements and observations are verified by water quality and bio-indicator specialists. In collaboration with their teachers and SCAPE personnel, students use geo-coordinates, water quality, flow, and observed organisms to create their own hyperlinked Google map to visualize the data. They then compare and evaluate the data and identify pollution sources from their sites and those from other living classrooms across the region.

Unit 4: System-wide Understandings. By looking at all of the living classrooms across the Mountain West, students develop an understanding of system-wide river water quality, security, and supply issues—our shared commons. Each school decides on an action to take, such as planning a water-related stewardship project with a local farmer, agriculture specialist, natural resource professional or member of the community, and posts their solutions and reports their progress on the customized “cloud” website developed specifically for SCAPE.

These materials have been developed to connect with students and teachers both broadly and deeply. Information and skillsets important to understanding water across the Mountain West—as an integrated system—are paired with objectives that address the particulars of different local conditions. While all students engage foundational issues such as history, hydrology, water chemistry, riparian ecology, etc., partner schools will also receive custom-tailored curricular materials that address the issues most pertinent to their “backyard.”