Appalachian Forest Heritage Area, Inc

Grantee: Appalachian Forest Heritage Area, Inc. – Elkins, West Virginia
Project Title: Watershed awareness through youth snorkeling events on the Monongahela Nati

two young students swimming with snorkels and wetsuits in river

Description: Schools in rural areas lack strong connections with outdoor programs and do not have the necessary equipment or capacities to engage in such activities. In the Central Appalachians, small towns and communities are intertwined with headwaters of the Ohio and Potomac River systems. Given that more resources are often directed towards suburban and urban schools, and thus more downstream reaches of the watershed, the importance of the beginnings of these watersheds is overlooked. The headwaters and the communities that interact with them are critical areas where either positive processes or negative degradations begin.

The ‘Watershed awareness through youth snorkeling events on the Monongahela National Forest’ project implemented by Appalachian Forest Heritage Area AmeriCorps, USDA Forest Service, and Petersburg Elementary School was swimmingly successful. Eighty students over the course of two days were given a unique view of aquatic ecology, witnessing natural fish behaviors and food web interactions often unseen from above the water surface or in an aquarium. By the end of the snorkeling session, students were able to identify local fish species, understand their roles within the ecosystem, and respect the importance of local watersheds. Inspired by the snorkel program on the Cherokee National Forest, the overall goal of the event was to provide a unique experience that fosters students’ appreciation for their local headwater streams. While snorkeling was the main focus of the event, the students rotated through other stations throughout the day, all exposing them to different facets of natural resource science, including Water Quality Monitoring, GPS Navigation, and Amphibian Sampling.

Continuous impact / Community engagement:  Hearing students describe this event as “the best field trip ever” and ask “Can we do this for fun, on our own time?” was living proof our goal was attained. One student was apprehensive about snorkeling and predicted it to be “dumb” and “boring.” When he experienced how much life he could see from underwater, his attitude immediately changed, and he told me how “awesome” the event was; he even inquired about how to get my job. As an environmental educator, that moment was crucial to know I was making a difference by getting those students into the stream.  – Madison Ball

By participating in these stations in addition to snorkel surveying, students walked away with a better understanding of ecosystem health and an exposure to a broad range of natural resource career paths. From here, this event will be replicated to create a Snorkel Program in the spring and summer of 2016. Petersburg Elementary School’s new fifth-grade class will be among those snorkeling, and schools all across the Monongahela National Forest will have the same opportunity. Our new goal is to have at least four schools participate in the spring program, but we hope to receive as many schools as scheduling permits.