May 9th, 2010

Celebrating their watershed: A stormwater education project on Oahu, Hawai‘i

By John Cusick

The goal of this project was to introduce students, their families, and teachers at public schools to stormwater-related environmental problems.  The project culminated in the development of reusable science education exhibits and a public event held at one of the participating schools.  The exhibits were designed to increase awareness of drainage basin processes and stormwater-related sources of pollution.  The exhibits demonstrated negative impacts and ways the public can mitigate these impacts to improve water quality while introducing concepts related to best management practices.

The University of Hawai‘i at Manoa Environmental Center collaborated with Bishop Museum in Honolulu to determine relevant and effective stormwater education materials and curriculum activities.  A review of National Science Education Standards (National Research Council 1996) and State of Hawai‘i Content Standards for Science  (Department of Education 2005) was used for project development.  Bishop Museum science educators developed a WaterWorks Festival that included 13 interactive exhibits, a slide presentation of historic and contemporary photographs of Central Oahu where the participating schools are located on U.S. military installations, and a Hawaiian cultural specialist who gave storytelling performances.  The underlying educational message was to suggest behavioral changes that will eventually make measurable differences in environmental quality.

Bishop Museum science educators and Environmental Center staff reviewed existing social and natural science curricula related to watershed education in elementary and secondary schools with the assistance of the State of Hawai‘i Department of Education content specialists.  The collection and analysis of relevant research materials for the Central Oahu watersheds was incorporated in the development of exhibits prepared by Bishop Museum.

A Focus on Watersheds

Approximately 60 students and their families from participating public elementary and middle schools attended the Festival.  The Festival was a three-hour event in an open house format i.e. drop-in, self-exploration.  It was held in a school cafeteria and engaged visitors in a diverse array of hands-on science, engineering, and cultural activities designed for multi-generational, interactive learning.  The topics presented in the Festival included watershed boundaries and topography, the water cycle, aquatic ecosystems and biota, soil erosion, water quality and management, stormwater and wastewater infrastructure, stormwater and drinking water systems, avoidance of pollution, and cultural resources (Table 1).

Table 1: Example text (a) and activity (b) from Festival exhibits.

a. Ahupua‘a is the Hawaiian word that comes closest to the meaning of watershed.  The Hawaiians were masters of land and resource management through their concept of the ahupua‘a – generally a pie-shaped division that starts mauka (at the top of a watershed) and ends makai (at the sea).  The ahupua‘a limit is the reef where near shore waters were an important food source.  Some ahupua‘a principles that may be transferred to watershed planning and management include access to a complete resource base, reverence for water and respect for all living things, Runoff and erosion can carry some of the applied phosphorus to nearby water bodies.
Phosphates test
1. Put on the goggles.
2. Take a test strip.
3. Dip the test strip into the water sample.  Hold for 3 seconds.
4. Did the test strip turn Blue or White?
>5. Find your test site on your map and circle the results.
6. Healthy = White   Not Healthy = Blue
7. Throw the used test paper away.cooperation, and intergenerational learning in support of ‘ohana (members of an extended family).

b. Our streams have too much algae.  Someone poured chemicals called “phosphates” in the water and it is making the algae grow too fast.  The fish and other animals cannot live with so much algae.  Please help us find the source.  An increase in phosphorus can set off accelerated plant growth, algae blooms, low dissolved oxygen, and the death of certain fish, invertebrates, and other aquatic animals.  Phosphorus is found in soil and rocks, wastewater treatment plants, runoff from fertilized lawns and cropland, failing septic systems, runoff from animal manure storage areas, disturbed land areas, drained wetlands, water treatment, and commercial cleaning preparations.  Phosphorus is rarely found in concentrations high enough to be toxic to higher organisms.  Manure and fertilizers increase the level of available phosphorus in the soil.

Participants in the Festival were challenged to consider what can be done on an individual basis and to consider the “big picture” in terms of what an institution, whether the military or the school system, can do to make a difference.  Scenarios required students to decide what to do with grease left in a cooking pan, as well as demonstrated the effectiveness of silt socks filled with different materials in a scaled-down version of a construction site.  These two scenarios linked how decisions made at home or work can make a difference on stream, estuary, and coastal ecosystem health.

A station simulated a car wash over permeable (grass) and non-permeable (paved) surfaces to see first hand how much dirt gets washed into storm drains.  Students learned how vehicles can be washed using recycled water in a catchment system that prevents mud and oils from entering the storm drain system.  At another station, students pumped water from 10 different depths to comprehend the level of penetration that fertilizers and pesticides have in a groundwater model.

Students poured water through three different cups with holes poked in the bottom to highlight the damage of feral pigs on native forests in Hawai‘i.  The first cup contained wood chips that simulated a forest floor, the second was filled with vegetation and soil simulating an area damaged by feral pig activity, and the third with packed soil to create conditions similar to an urban landscape.  A general reaction by participants was surprise that a natural forest floor acted as a filter whereas an area degraded by feral pigs creates extensive erosion of valuable topsoil.

The Festival developed an awareness and understanding of stormwater-related problems in the watersheds of central Oahu, particularly that of Waikele Stream, which is identified as a watershed at risk by the State of Hawai‘i.  Although a quantitative evaluation of the Festival was not conducted, the materials are frequently requested by schools under the auspices of the Bishop Museum Holoholo Science outreach program that allows the exhibits to be presented at events throughout the State of Hawai‘i.

Implementing a watershed curriculum in the schools

The project’s initial scope of work was to develop grades 5-8 curriculum for a complete academic year.  A primary motivator for this effort was to avoid the “rhetoric-reality gap” of public education’s attention to environmental education (Stevenson 2007).  As originally intended, environmental education is the promotion of nature and outdoor study, but due to No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) demands for performance in standardized exams, opportunities for intimate experiences with the natural environment are few and are often perceived as luxuries by school administrators (Gruenewald and Manteaw 2007, Stevenson 2007).

The planned curriculum was to situate the school campus in the watersheds of central Oahu with considerable time spent conducting field site visits for exploration, observation and monitoring of the physical, biological, and cultural environments.  The basis for the idea of an outdoor classroom provides “educational experiences where students soak up all manner of lessons in animal and plant sciences without realizing they remain rooted in an environment of learning” (Flannery 2006:32).  Curriculum designed to involve students in the learning of their place in the watershed can highlight the importance of protecting water resources and preserving habitat, as demonstrated in case studies as diverse as the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Bengal.  These same curricula can be used to meet National Science Education Standards (Miner and Elshof 2007, Sarkar et al. 2007, Shepardson et al. 2007).

However, a series of school visits and meetings conducted during the planning phase made evident how difficult it would be to accomplish the original scope of work in pursuit of objectives as identified in the original proposal.  The schools and teachers were unable to participate in the proposed project primarily due to time and curriculum limitations as a result of mandates associated with NCLB.  This situation is not unique to the target schools on Oahu, and confirmed that NCLB mandates leave few opportunities for additional activities in teaching schedules.  “Environmental education continues to be marginalized, misunderstood as mainly about science, and in many places totally neglected” (Gruenewald and Manteaw 2007:173).

There was general agreement on the merits of the project, but school administrators showed reluctance to distract teachers from focusing on existing lesson preparation, class time, and additional faculty responsibilities.  Alternatively, a teacher workshop and curriculum were proposed and discussed in planning meetings and in subsequent conversations and emails with school administrators and teachers over a period of several months.  These included substituting class teachers with project content specialists trained in the curriculum and its connection to national and state education standards, and scaling back the curriculum to focus on fewer grades and class subjects.

The stormwater curriculum for Grades 5 and 7 as originally proposed was to be designed for a six to eight week period in the Fall and Spring semesters.  The curriculum would be “place-based”, meaning that it be tailored to the environmental context of the participating schools.  Smith (2007:190) suggests that a place-based approach “can be distinguished from much conventional environmental education by the attention its practicioners direct toward social and natural environments.”  His article includes a case study from the island of Moloka‘i in the State of Hawai‘i that engaged fifth and sixth graders academically in important community issues.  The project site on urban Oahu did not involve the same demographic as on rural Moloka‘i, but school administrators and teachers suggested that participating schools confront equal challenges related to discipline problems, lower performance, and at risk of school failure.  In fact, administrators indicated that field studies, whether to field sites on school campuses, or for field trips to Bishop Museum, would not be possible due to student conduct violations on previous excursions.

A discussion among project members ensued as to what other options might accommodate the needs of schools and teachers while still addressing project objectives.  A school event based on the concept of a Science Fair, an event that would be a “celebration of their watershed” to encourage an ethic of environmental stewardship was suggested.  This was the preferred option to pursue because it allowed for accommodation of the constraints on teachers while ensuring a learning opportunity to address stormwater education.  Bishop Museum staff suggested this format based on prior experience with the design of exhibits for use in a one-day event.

The exhibit materials are currently archived and made accessible for future use.  According to the Bishop Museum 2007 Education Guide to Outreach Programs, the traveling exhibits bring “exciting, hands-on science to your school.  Students have the opportunity to think and act like scientists, and connect to what they are learning in the classroom.  Each session is designed to support student achievement of national and state content and performance standards.  Presented by dynamic science educators and scientists, the programs encourage inquiry and exploration” (Bishop Museum 2007:4).

As indicated, the objective of this project was to develop stormwater education materials targeted for elementary and middle public school students, their families, and staff.  The initial challenge was considered to be curriculum development, but instead became a matter of addressing school administrator and teacher concerns as how to accommodate the addition of stormwater-related concepts into existing curriculum.  The original intent was to develop content that would be incorporated into existing curriculum during the course of the school year.  However, the evident reluctance on the part of school administrators to overload their teaching staff indicated that a compromise solution was necessary to achieve the project objective.  The compromise was to conduct the Festival and to develop the exhibits for continued use by Bishop Museum.


In summary, the project developed stormwater education materials as proposed and presented these to students and their families.  The resulting science education exhibits are now available for future use and available as part of the Bishop Museum Holoholo Science outreach program.  Although not measured formally, the success of the Festival was reported by local media, “Watching the excited faces of the students as they ran from one station to the next, making sure not to miss anything in between, it appeared that the event was a success.  However, the true measure of success won’t come until later – when the children grow into active members of the community” (Gardin 2007:B1).


This project was funded by the U.S. Geologic Survey Agreement No. 05HQGR0171.  The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Bishop Museum science education staff Kay Fullerton, Nancy Ali, Leon Geschwind, Amber Inwood, Heidi Lennstrom; University of Hawai‘i graduate assistant Pam Hagan; and Russell Leong and Daina Auger, U.S. Army Garrison, Hawai‘i Directorate of Public Works, Environmental Division.


Bishop Museum (2007).  Education Guide to Outreach Programs.

Department of Education (2005).  Hawaii Content and Performance Standards for Science. Honolulu: State of Hawaii.

Flanner, M. (2006).  Seeds of learning: lessons take root in an outdoor classroom, where fresh air leads to new thinking.  National Education Association Today 24(5), 32-33.

Gardin, Stefanie (2007).  WaterWorks Festival: Collaborative efforts help keep young student’s knowledge of water flowing and growing. Hawaii Army Weekly, Friday, March 16, B1, B4-5.

Gruenewald, D. and B. Manteaw (2007).  Oil and water still: how No Child Left Behind limits and distorts environmental education in US schools.  Environmental Education Research 13(2), 171-188.

Minor, J. and L. Elshof (2007).  Empowering youth.  Science Teacher 74(4), 24-26.

National Research Council (1996).  National Science Education Standards. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.

Sarkar, S., M. Saha, H. Takada, A. Bhattacharya, P. Mishra, B. Battacharya (2007).  Water quality management in the lower stretch of the river Ganges, east coast of India: an approach through environmental education. Journal of Cleaner Production 15(16), 1559-1567.

Shepardson, D., B. Wee, M. Priddy, L. Schedllenberger, J. Harbor (2007).  What is a watershed? Implications of student conceptions for environmental science education and the National Science Education Standards. Science Education 91(4), 554-578.

Stevenson, R. (2007).  Schooling and environmental education: contradictions in purpose and practice.  Environmental Education Research 13(2), 139-153.

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Comments (1)

  1. Janice Dewar says:

    You may be interested in checking our website at and looking at our public education programs
    for Grade 4 and 8 (Wastewater); Grade 5 (Storm Water) and a second Grade 8 program on Stormwater (in progress). The programs are entitled Treat it
    Tight and link the curriculum and changing actions around the storm and wastewater system to protect the environment and the system.

    We also offer a Puppetshow as an extension to our wastewater program for
    Grades 2 and 4 and a field trip to the constructed wetlands for Grade 5 – you may want to check out the video links on the site.

    We also offer an adult program on fats, oils, and grease – Store it, don’t pour it.

    Feedback is always welcome