Water camps: tracing water’s journey through our lives
Turn on your sink, take a shower, sip from a drinking fountain — water is a luxury that many take for granted. Where does water come from? And where does it go after it swirls down the drain? To answer these questions, 55 elementary- and middle-school-age children traced the path of water through their lives in two Mississippi River Water Journey Camps held at the Institute on the Environment in July with support from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Campers came to realize water’s journey to our homes and schools is more than meets the eye.
“We are interdependent with the systems around us. But because much of our water infrastructure is hidden, its hard to see those connections,” said IonE fellow Jonee Brigham, who created the camps to help children engage with water infrastructure and understand the connection between water, people and the environment.
Each week’s activities began at a specific “flow node” — an iconic starting point of water’s journey. The flow node for week one, Rain Week, was a storm drain on the corner outside the IonE building that served as base camp. The following week, Drink Week, campers used the building’s drinking fountain to anchor their journey.
Rain Week comprised a four-day expedition that followed a drop of rain from the storm drain to the Mississippi River. Brigham and her team helped campers trace the path of rain by following the location of manhole covers that lead to the Sarita Wetland, and then traveled beyond to the Mississippi River. At Sarita Wetland, campers planted native plants to promote water quality. All along the way, campers took water samples and pictures to further explore and document their own story of the journey of rain.
Campers not only used existing maps but also created their own to help tell their stories. This activity can “help kids see the relationship between the places they visit and understand how water is connected across different places,” Brigham said.
Rebecca Barney, a graduate student studying geographic information systems at the University of Minnesota, guided campers through the map-making process.
“It’s a powerful tool that can promote storytelling in a reflective, active and involving way,” Barney said. “Engaging the campers with these artistic maps allowed them to creatively develop the story of water with their own vision.”
Drink Week focused on drinking water. Campers followed the path water takes to our faucets (symbolized by the drinking fountain) beginning and ending at the Mississippi River. On the way, they visited the St. Paul water treatment plant and the St. Paul campus water tower, where Cathy Abene, a civil engineer with UMN’s Facilities Management, led the campers inside the water tower and explained why they’re placed on high ground (to create pressure to ease water delivery). Abene also explained the jobs of various pressure gauges and pipeline infrastructure needed to successfully distribute water.
After following the water to IonE’s water meter and finally to the drinking fountain, campers traveled downstream where Abene and her crew opened up a sanitary sewer manhole that takes waste water (including toilet flush) away from the building. The next day, campers stopped at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant and ended their journey at the Mississippi River, where they cruised on a riverboat to find the place where the wastewater treatment plant returns the water to the river.
At the end of each week, campers showcased their stories to family and friends with maps, artwork and pictures. The connection between water, its pathways and its relation to the environment were essential takeaways for campers over the two weeks of water adventures.
“I was learning things I didn’t know before,” one camper said.
“Creating a sense of relationship for kids between their own lives and their water sources was my favorite part of the camp,” Brigham said. “One of the biggest rewards was the sense of wonder and curiosity from the campers about water infrastructure. They now have a better understanding of how everyday uses of water are connected to the Mississippi River.”
Giving the campers a chance to practice their stewardship skills was also important. “They realized they can contribute to water health. They took great pride and pleasure in putting in native plants at Sarita Wetland to help the water as well as the frogs, butterflies and grasshoppers that they met,” said Brigham. “If it were up to me, everyone would experience this journey of water and explore how interconnected we are.”