Three Rivers students to conduct large scale study on city’s water

Pictured is the type of container students and citizens will use to collect samples of the city's water. (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

Three Rivers High School students studying Applied Physics are conducting a large scale study of the town’s water quality. Led by teacher Joe Graber, the class will be using commercially available water testing kits. The students are asking for the public to obtain water samples from their homes to aid in the database they are building with collected results. 

Entering his fourth year of teaching, Graber recently told Watershed Voice how this project came to be as, at first glance, water quality testing appears to relate more to chemistry than physics. Graber decided to focus on the aspect of the scientific method, and how it could be tied in with the potential plan. “The project might not be physics-specific,” he said, “but it is science-specific. It will make students think about how to do things scientifically, and how they can address issues within their own neighborhoods.” 

With many conversations happening throughout town, in city commission meetings, and on social media, concerns with the city’s water quality is a topic students are well versed in. “My best asset here has been Nick VanDenBrink (assistant principal),” Graber said regarding developing the project. “He used to be a science teacher so we really talked it out, and we were convinced that — no matter what — we could tie it in scientifically and tie it into the state standards.”

Joe Graber instructing his Applied Physics students on how to log their work during the water quality testing project. (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

At the time of this article, residents of Three Rivers are able to stop by the TRHS front office to obtain water collection bottles. Each tube has been given sticker labels which contain a specific QR code. After scanning the code, the resident will be taken to a website where they can fill out information regarding where the sample was collected. Graber explained that once that information has been submitted, a global information systems tag will be created in order to electronically tie the sample to the database. After a resident has filled the bottle, the samples can be returned to the TRHS front office. 

In order to keep funding costs down, Graber is purchasing every testing kit himself at $20 per box, with 125 tests inside each box. “I bought these on Amazon,” he said, “and we can do 16 tests for each sample.” Mercury, copper, and chromium are among a few heavy metals the testing will be looking to identify. The kits will also flag samples containing lead, nitrates, chlorine, and varying pH levels. Students in the class will be responsible for testing each sample themselves, though Graber might have to delegate a portion of the work to his after-school tutoring students if there is an overwhelming amount of collections. Graber wants students to take on as much of the work as possible. “I want it to be their thing. I have got everything organized and set up for them…but it’s their thing.”

Although Graber had discussions with the Department of Public Works prior to this undertaking, he wants the public to know “we are not coordinating with them. This project is completely independent.” He does not want citizens to believe any of the results from the testing could be manipulated by outside sources, or that the data could be influenced in any way. Graber does plan, however, to bring his students to a future city commission meeting, where the topic of water quality is frequently discussed, in order to unveil their project, and have a discussion with city leaders. “To me, the cherry on top would be going to a city council meeting and maybe somebody would listen to these kids,” Graber said.

Applied Physics is in its first year of existence. It was developed when TRHS was struggling to get students interested in physics classes. Graber acknowledged something had to change. “What if we made a class that met the physics standards so that you could have a physics class, but we offered it in a totally different way?” 

Graber began studying courses and researching books on project-based learning, and the current Applied Physics class was born. Referred to by Graber as “a classroom of the future,” his students are learning by building projects and then doing brief segments of assignments based on the work they have completed to understand the way it relates to physics. Over the course of its debut year students have built rockets, bridges, and are currently constructing paper roller coasters that, once completed, could be eight or 10 feet tall. 

Graber said the most rewarding part of instructing this unique class is seeing students unknowingly absorb the curriculum. He watches the kids working independently, talking amongst themselves as they build, and listens to them discussing why certain components will or will not work. “They might be explaining it, but they’re not using any physics language. They’re actually doing physics, but they’re not even realizing they’re doing physics. To me, that’s the best part.” 

Graber said he doesn’t see a way for the school to offer an additional second course for interested students. The current class size is 20 and Graber said he couldn’t effectively teach a larger class, let alone two total classes since he teaches chemistry, as well. 

A few trips relating to the water quality project have been planned for the Applied Physics class before the end of the year. One of them will be in coordination with the Department of Public Works, according to Graber, where students will be given a tour of the Three Rivers wellfield. “We also have a trip coming up in a few weeks to visit the three wells on Douglas Street, and to tour a little building there where they do water treatments.” 

As far as future projects for the Applied Physics course, Graber has a multitude of ideas from which to choose. One is to take the familiar Egg Drop experiment and bring it to the next level — literally — by dropping eggs from the Three Rivers Fire Department ladder truck. He also has interest in bringing more electronic and robotic-based learning to the class, though getting supplies for such a course of study has proven to be difficult. Graber has access to solar boards and adaptors, and has also considered a project for students building chargers for phones or laptops. “What if the students could make a really inexpensive solar charger that will actually charge a Chromebook?”

A working document for students on how to apply the scientific method to the water quality project. (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

Citizens of Three Rivers interested in participating in the water project are invited to visit the TRHS front office during school hours to both pick up and drop off water tube samples. Graber tells Watershed Voice while students are mainly interested in the results from water obtained in the city, they will not turn away samples which come from wells. The students also plan to test the water quality at Three Rivers Middle School and surrounding elementary buildings. While residents can begin dropping off samples as soon as today, Graber said it could be a few weeks before they begin the testing process. The prospect of what the students’ findings will reveal has raised the energy level for both the students and instructor, Graber said. 

“I think it’ll be interesting to see if a certain part of town has a bunch of bad tests, and the rest is good. Then maybe we look at what part of the system is feeding that part of town. Maybe that’s the issue.”

The Three Rivers High School front office is located at 700 Sixth Ave.

Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.