If you like to fish or swim, you will be happy to learn that local waters are rated good to excellent for both activities, according to data analyzed by seniors at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, or WHEELS. Student scientific research and fieldwork has also established that New York City water straight from the tap is a better bet than commercially bottled water.
Science teacher Jared Fox, a recent winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Award for Excellence in Teaching Science and Mathematics, has made water the core area of study this year for seniors in his environmental science classes. It is a focus that has taken them far beyond their upper Manhattan classroom. The young scientists have waded into the Bronx River and its estuaries as well as New York Harbor, and they have traveled as far as the Catskills to collect water samples for study and evaluation.
Fox, who has a doctorate in education from Columbia University, is quick to point out his students are doing "fieldwork" as distinguished from a "field trip." Their on-site research, he said, is a form of authentic expeditionary learning grounded in real-world issues and concerns.
The school's educational mission drew him there nine years ago. "I was six years into my career and wondering whether to switch or leave when WHEELS found me and the philosophy clicked," said Fox, who also serves as a master teacher at the school.
The walls of his plant-filled classroom are bright with colorful posters that proclaim "Think Outside the Bottle" and "From Mountains to Fountains," encouraging New Yorkers to drink local tap water and save the environment from the tons of plastic bottles that pollute waterways and endanger wildlife.
One February morning, the seniors are researching New York State Department of Environmental Conservation documents and graphs and interpreting complex tests to trace the history of water purity in the state over several years. Each team of two or three students has been assigned a recent year to study. They will present their findings to the rest of the class for an overall assessment of whether water conditions in New York State have been improving or deteriorating over time. At the end of the year, these environmental scientists, who have also heard from experts invited to their classes, will present their findings about water conditions and their importance locally and nationally to the school and the community at a fair.
Community engagement is an important part of the work Fox and his students do. A dedicated group is working on the school's Clean Air Corridor campaign to create a cleaner, greener and healthier 182nd Street, from Broadway to Highbridge Park, a main thoroughfare for students from six neighboring schools. Students surveyed community members and attended community board meetings to find out what residents and businesses would like improved along that route and into the park, which is being restored. Based on that research, they got busy planting trees, restoring the school gardens and cleaning up litter and drug paraphernalia. Friends of WHEELS, a community group, contributed $35,000 to the effort and environmental groups such as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have also contributed.
"It's amazing to watch what the students are accomplishing in this campaign," Fox said. "They are a passionate group, really invested in the work they're doing."
In January, Fox and four of his students attended the city Department of Education's daylong climate change workshop at UFT headquarters in Manhattan. While none of the students plans to be a scientist, all are climate change activists. Musician Mayerling Zantigua hopes to inspire people to care with music and song. Ricardo Herrara plans to build environmentally sound buildings as an architect. Diana Arevalo wants to write about environmental issues and Allan Mestiza plans to apply his technology expertise to solving climate problems.
Chapter Leader Liz Savicz said his colleagues support and cheer on the environmental work Fox is doing in the community.
"He has used his classroom as a model for best teaching practices," said Savicz. "And he has taught his students the importance of activism in making the changes needed to correct climate change."