July 12, 2017
Eastway Elementary School third graders discover different types of North Carolina soil with the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association.

“Dirt!” “Humus?” “Clay!”

Gathered around bags of top soil and sand, clear plastic cups, mason jars, and an orange water cooler, Eastway Elementary School third graders tested their knowledge of North Carolina soil.

That Friday morning, Long Meadow Park was their outdoor classroom, and Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association staff were their teachers. Chris Sajdak, the association’s education and outreach coordinator, talked with the young students about soil absorption rates and plant growth under the intensifying morning sun as one of the students cooled herself off with a hot-pink fan.

“We’re going to go on a soil scavenger hunt,” Sajdak said. The students cheered, then quickly divided into groups to explore the nearby thicket surrounding Goose Creek, a tributary of Ellerbe Creek. Without hesitation, they started digging their fingers into the mud at the base of trees, some rolling the wet soil into a compact ball in their hands.

The Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association visits Durham classrooms and holds outdoor lessons as part of its Explorers Club, which connects students in kindergarten through fifth grade to environmental education opportunities and fosters a love of the outdoors. The nonprofit’s big-picture mission is advocating for a healthy Ellerbe Creek, which runs through Durham and empties into Falls Lake, and protecting more than 340 acres of land along the creek and its tributary streams.

“Through the Explorers Club, hundreds of kids a year may develop a more real relationship with the creek. That’s pretty important,” said Chris Dreps, executive director of the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association. “The impact is little stewards being created in the community.”

Last fall, the nonprofit received a $5,000 Community Care Fund grant, which is funded by Duke employee donations to the annual Duke Doing Good in the Neighborhood giving campaign. The grant supports the organization’s Explorer Club and Family Explorers Club, which invites families to participate in free nature scavenger hunts and educational hikes on a select Saturday every month.

The grant supports Explorers Club visits to Durham classrooms and parks by helping to fund staff positions and materials such as kid-sized rain boots and water testing equipment such as turbidity tubes, which measures the cloudiness of water. Association staff and volunteers focus on lessons that highlight ecosystems and environmental issues experienced by the Ellerbe Creek watershed, or an area of land where water drains into a common outlet.

Explorers Club lessons include searching for animal tracks, testing the pH, temperature and dissolved oxygen in water, and identifying native versus invasive plants. Through the grant, the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association expanded the Explorers Club to Eastway Elementary School this year, and during the first club lesson in February, the Eastway third graders built water filters in their classroom.

Turquoise Parker, the third-grade teacher from Eastway Elementary, said the visit to Long Meadow Park helped her students review their lesson on plant growth and the lifecycle of living things. She added that the Explorers Club may help pique her students’ interest in environmental science.

“I’m a firm believer in hands-on learning,” she said. “Any opportunity to make a partnership to help them grow means the world. I just love these kids. They’re so brilliant.”

Eight-year-old Esther Hernandez-Alvarez collects soil samples near Goose Creek.

Sajdak walked around during the soil scavenger hunt, explaining to the third graders that this area of the North Carolina Piedmont is home to lots of clay, that humus is dead, organic material that feeds plants nutrients, and that sand doesn’t hold as much moisture as other types of soil.

“A lot of it is talking with the teacher beforehand and seeing what the students are learning,” Sajdak said about his environmental lesson-planning. “I didn’t see any kids today that were afraid to get messy.”

At the end of the lesson, students washed their hands off in the orange water cooler and returned their smudged plastic cups. They lined up, waving goodbye as they prepared to cross the street and walk back to Eastway Elementary. Eight-year-old Esther Hernandez-Alvarez joined her classmates in line.

When asked about her favorite part of the scavenger hunt, Hernandez-Alvarez was quick to respond.

“I touched clay around the park,” she exclaimed. “It was like the best day of my life!”

To learn more about the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association’s advocacy work, explorers clubs and volunteer opportunities, visit the nonprofit’s website. To support the Community Care Fund and more community projects like this one, Duke staff and faculty can make a donation or increase their donation to Doing Good in the Neighborhood year-round.

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