Dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, turbidity, and specific conductivity: the basic parameters measured for water quality. The terms sound intimidating to both children and adults—as scientific jargon often does—but the concepts can be taught to anyone with the right approach. Throughout history, we have used stories as teaching tools. Whether they are fables or satires, these narratives communicate a message the audience can take with them as the story ends and they walk into the world. The same approach can be applied to water education by telling students a story and pairing it with field studies provide an engaging and practical context that allows students to see the relevance of what they are learning.

For elementary school students, water quality is an abstract concept. But when paired with a narrative, it becomes tangible. The narrative creates a framework for the data, with the story’s character and conflict being focal points. All the events within the story somehow relate back to the character, which facilitates students developing an interest in the character while making the connection that clean water is important and humans can impact waterways.

As with all stories, the water education narrative needs to have a character, a setting, a plot, a conflict, a resolution, and a theme. With the story being rooted in water education, the setting will pertain to a water body. The theme is the overarching takeaway from the story. Based on that theme a conflict based on a fact, measurement, or piece of scientific data can be introduced. The theme and conflict create a platform for data collection to be incorporated into the story. The plot ties it all together, and conclusions drawn from the field study can create the resolution.

For example, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control created an activity book titled “A Fish’s Wish” in which the reader meets a fish and completes activities (e.g. crossword puzzles, anagrams, word finds) that emphasize how stormwater pollution impacts the fish’s environment. While A Fish’s Wish does not contain much of a plot, it does have a theme: fish need to live in clean water and the water needs to be free of certain pollutants in order for that to happen. Through the activities, the book introduces the concept of stormwater pollution and teaches the reader names of different types of pollutants like soap suds, oils, and pet waste. The big take-home message of the story is that people can prevent water pollution. Everything in the book, including the purpose of the story and activities ties into that message.

This same approach can be used to teach technical information by adapting the premise of A Fish’s Wish to show how human actions impact aquatic organisms and their habitat. During classroom sessions, students are told the story of the fish and become familiar with the story’s plot and the conflict the fish faces. As a component of the story, students collect field data and learn water quality parameters that directly relate to the story. For example, in an adaption of A Fish’s Wish, the fish can be named Tessa, a rainbow trout. Rainbow trout live in streams with cold water and high dissolved oxygen levels. Because they are sensitive to pollutants, rainbow trout are considered bioindicators that alert ecologists and water scientists to the condition and health of a stream. In the adapted story, Tessa lives a happy life in a stream with plenty of trees and vegetation along the stream bank. Those trees shade the stream to keep it cool and Tessa finds shelter under fallen logs. One day the landowner decides to remove the trees and plants along the stream bank to create a view of the landscape that looks neat and clean. Once the trees are removed, there is no shade over the water and it gets hot from the sun. Tessa needs a colder environment, so the warmer water makes her body unable to function as it should. Warmer water also contains less dissolved oxygen than cooler water, so Tessa has difficulty breathing because of the reduced amount of oxygen. Over time Tessa notices that there are fewer small fish and macroinvertebrates for her to eat because those organisms used to live in the shoreline vegetation and fallen leaves that are no longer there because the trees and vegetation have been removed. The conflict of the story becomes Tessa’s lack of oxygen and food as a result of the changes made to the stream banks—changes that negatively impacted Tessa’s environment. Using that conflict and plot creates a platform for students to learn about and collect data on dissolved oxygen, temperature, habitats, and aquatic life.

During the field studies related to this story, students assess the physical, chemical, and biological states of a stream to learn how the dissolved oxygen is impacted by all three states in addition to learning how Tessa is impacted by the change in her environment. It is important to incorporate all three aspects of water quality because they are so intertwined, as demonstrated by Tessa’s story. The physical assessment can include taking a nature walk and making observations about the stream and the surrounding area. The chemical tests can include measuring temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen. And the biological assessment can include studying aquatic macroinvertebrates and a discussion about food webs. In transposing Tessa’s setting in the story to the field study site, students gain a perspective on the real-world application of the data they collect and its significance. Prior to the field tests, students can make initial hypotheses based on the optimal dissolved oxygen and temperature range for Tessa’s environment. The students also need oxygen to live, so they can identify with Tessa’s dilemma and imagine what their world would be like if they had less oxygen in their environment. Tessa’s character gives the students something to care about so they become invested in the health of the waterway and preserving its cleanliness.

When educating others on the negative impact humans can have on the environment, it is always good to end on a hopeful note. As a follow-up to the data collection and a resolution to the story, students can design ways in which Tessa’s environment can be returned to optimal conditions. There is also the opportunity for students to think outside the box and come up with an innovative solution, as well as the opportunity for them to understand the rationale behind best management practices that are currently implemented.

This approach not only teaches students how to collect and interpret data while being involved in storytelling and generating conclusions based on observations, but the field studies themselves may take students to a location—such as a park or greenway—they may have never visited otherwise and expose them to career options. Overall, they gain a comprehensive learning experience that ensures students take away something, even if it was not what was originally intended. If nothing else, it will make their own great story for when they are older.