Winter Salt Watch Turns Young Scientists Into Conservationists

Jeff Witters
Young girl with Salt Watch materials

The Salt Watcher of the Month for February 2022 is Jeff Witters! Jeff teaches two AP/College Now environmental science classes at Olathe South High School in Olathe, Kansas. This is what he had to say about getting started with Salt Watch.

My Environment Science classes just began the project this year. The course is a college-level class with credit possible through either the Advanced Placement subject exam or enrollment with Johnson County Community College, so I work to provide in-depth experiences for the students to connect course content with their daily lives.

After my students and I had observed incredible amounts of salt being put on surfaces all around our town in previous winters, it led to interesting discussions about what effects all that salt might be having. I have my students go out on various assignments throughout the year that put them near our local streams, and there’s always been a lot of interest in those streams. After all, they are beautiful places and the students often were unaware that they even had access to them.

It’s the places you know and appreciate that you are much more likely to care about.-Jeff Witters

This year, I decided to have my students monitor the small stream by our school monthly throughout the year, to connect in-class learning to our nearby environment and to help them become familiar with a particular place. It’s the places you know and appreciate that you are much more likely to care about. The questions about salt were still in the back of my mind, but I’m trained as a grassland ecologist, so water monitoring is newer territory for me. In doing some searching online to try to find more information about how to monitor, I ran across the Winter Salt Watch project and I was thrilled that I did not need to re-invent the wheel!

I quickly saw on the website that at the time, there were no streams in the Kansas City Metro represented on the Winter Salt Watch map. So in a fit of ambition I signed up my classes for a dozen sites on seven streams across our big county in the southwest area of the metro region. The plan with choosing so many sites is that my students will use the data in class to try to understand patterns of salinity in the variety of streams across a gradient of urbanization. As expected, we’ve seen relatively slight bumps in salinity in the streams at or beyond the urban edge, while the ones in the heart of developed areas tend to be off the charts.

I prefer to offer participation in extension activities like this for a bit of extra credit. However, I was worried that too few would want to do something so crazy as going under a bridge on a muddy bank in the middle of winter to fill up a tiny cup of water. Well, I didn’t need to worry! I took a couple sites so I could learn with the students, but with each round of sampling, my students have taken nearly all the remaining sites. They mostly have gone out in pairs, and overall, we’ve had only very minor mishaps. Despite the warnings, this would include the student who learned firsthand the meaning of the phrase “on thin ice” – fortunately over relatively shallow water.

Where it goes from here is hard to say. I have course-specific content objectives that are nicely addressed with the data we are generating, but the question that should follow any learning is, “Now you know, so what are you going to do differently?” As part of the course, the students learn about environmental policy, how laws and regulations represent some attempt at balancing various societal needs. As young drivers, they know from direct experience how scary icy, slick roads can be. But this year they get to spend a lot of time considering the natural communities interwoven into our human-dominated landscape.

For many of the students, their perception of our local streams changes, from those weedy, trash-filled places where water just goes “away,” to an awareness that the streams are living ecosystems. These living threads not only provide humans some pretty critical services, but they are also home to creatures of surprising diversity and even beauty. After their experiences with Winter Salt Watch, students realize it’s worth making some changes to ensure the next generation will also be able to experience healthy streams.

Get started with Salt Watch

Top photo: Jeff didn’t have a picture of himself, so this is his daughter! “She’s grown up in and around these creeks, so she’s a legit helper.”

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