Skip to main content

Midvale Journal

Water quality to COVID-19, Hillcrest environmental students learn concepts, apply understanding

Dec 10, 2020 09:31AM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High School students, in October 2019, test the water in Little Cottonwood Creek as part of their “water quality walk.” (Jake Flannigan/Hillcrest High)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

On a Friday morning in October, Hillcrest High teacher Jake Flannigan decided to take advantage of both the good weather and the opportunity presented after Canyons Board of Education approved Fridays as “continued learning Fridays,” allowing for teacher collaboration and student independent study. With the nod from administration, he met nine advanced placement environmental studies students at Winchester Park along the Jordan River for a field study.

“I wanted them to have some hands-on learning, to take the concepts they were learning and apply them locally,” he said. “It makes what they’re learning more meaningful.”

Flannigan showed students the rock outcroppings, and how the water formed deep pools, allowing for more wildlife along the water, as well as better water quality.

“This area is popular for fishing and birding; it’s one of the most diverse areas of the river here,” he said.

But a few steps away, at the pond where ducks and geese skimmed along the surface and were nestled on the banks, was another story, he said.

“It’s a great example of horrible eutrophication,” he said, saying that added nutrients created more microbes in the water, resulting in more algae bloom that was depleting oxygen levels. When that happens, rotting occurs creating a murky bottom to the pond.

“That can lead to a bad situation for wildlife and human health,” he said after students took measurements for dissolved oxygen, pH levels, total dissolved solids and temperature.

Pond ecology is considered the interaction of the life in the pond with the environment that exists there, he said, adding that humans are adding to the unsteadiness by feeding breadcrumbs to the waterfowl.

“We talked about having good balance and water flow and how to improve it,” he said about maintaining that ecological balance.

He compared it to how both Wheeler Farm and Murray City Park added sandbars to their lake areas which “seemed to be the fix with a sandy bottom and get the nastiness out.”

Then, Flannigan and the students took to their bikes, scooters and running shoes and headed south along the Jordan trail, going upriver to observe discharge water from West Jordan’s South Valley Water Reclamation Facility. 

In the past, students have toured the facility, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, that isn’t an option, so students tested water conditions at that point.

“They learned the water quality was better than the river as any reclaimed water that is added back into the Jordan River has to be of improved levels,” he said. 

Junior Zoe Welch was one of the students at the Friday field study.

“It was great that we were able to apply what we’re learning to real life,” she said. “We learned the Jordan River is built in certain ways, so it helps keep it clean for the animals’ habitat and our water healthy and protects our environment.”

Flannigan and colleague Hayden Bove also took their environmental sciences classes on walking field trips around the Hillcrest campus.

Through the years, Flannigan’s students have compiled data from the local canal that has been used to irrigate the fields. This year, as water already was turned off, they walked to Little Cottonwood Creek to study and test the water. 

“This is allowing students to gather information, analyze and understand the world instead of just memorizing facts,” he said.

Students also build aquariums from kits to understand the relationship between gravel, snails and algae, studying nitrate and oxygen levels and learning about carbon cycles. After watching it for three weeks, they make a change that could either improve or harm those levels and make conclusions based on their data.

“They learn how nature works and the big impact of how humans can affect those systems,” he said.

Throughout the years, his students have tested the soil quality around campus, the mud from the canal and for the past four years, the school garden.

“We can amend the garden’s soil and track it to see what works,” he said, adding that Earth Club students found a new location for the school garden in the spring as the current garden in the courtyard of the 58-year-old building will be demolished as part of the school’s reconstruction.

Three years ago, the environmental studies students looked at sustainable energy designs and created a plan for the new school building.

“They looked at the sun angle to help heat up the floors of the building and what kinds of shades could apply to the building. They had sustainable features that could be built into the new design of the building and a group of them took the proposal to the architect and presented it,” he said.

As a result, the new school building will have solar wiring available for hookup.

“I’m teaching concepts of the real world we live in and these students are gaining so much more from these experiences,” he said. 

To start the year, students had the opportunity to learn more about COVID-19 as socially distanced, they sang their ABCs over petri glasses wearing their masks correctly, wearing their mask on without covering their noses, and without a mask. Then, they traced the number of colonies of bacteria, with the masked test as the base.

“There were three times more colonies in the no mask petri glasses and two times when they wore it with their nose out,” he said. “It captured the students’ attention because here was something that they’re living now, a public health concern. These are opportunities they’re learning about in the world they live in, after studying the concepts of the class and then, able to apply their knowledge.”