Ecology students make a splash

Published 7:32 pm Friday, January 26, 2018

High school students are partnering with community organizations to preserve and protect the natural beauty of Suffolk’s waterways.

More than two dozen King’s Fork High School students are members of the Ecology Club, which executes STEM-based projects on environmental sustainability and stewardship. They also mentor younger students when they’re not getting hands-on experience.

Their goal is to give back to the community and have younger students understand how and why they should protect the environment, said KFHS junior and club president Dyontay Beale, 17, “and continue our collaboration with other schools and programs in the city of Suffolk to build a better estuary and a greener environment for us.”

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The club was formed in 2014 with a school recycling program inspired by a student. Their ongoing recycling program is supported by school fundraisers and continues to grow, according to biology teacher and club advisor Tonya Bangley.

“The goal is to expand that program as well,” Bangley said. “As we progressed, the kids wanted to reach out into the community. Not just our small community but everyone.”

The club teamed with the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance for the Nansemond Watershed Initiative. The two have worked together on a mentorship program since last fall in which KFHS students teach seventh-graders at King’s Fork Middle School.

These lessons reach about 125 seventh-grade students at KFMS, and the plan is to have more students at Suffolk’s other high schools teach even more seventh-graders, according to NRPA High School Program Manager Cindi Pinell.

“It’s been a huge success, and we’re trying to build on that success,” Pinell said.

Club members described how excited the younger students are when they stop by their classrooms.

“Every time we go over there, the kids look forward to seeing us,” said KFHS junior Connor Thompson, 16. “It’s one thing for the teachers to teach them, but when we go in, they actually get excited. They care about what we’re doing.”

They’re also planning to transform a pond beside their school into an outdoor teaching laboratory. The pond is already used for lessons in microscopic pond organisms, but their proposal will install native plants and a path of donated river rocks.

Their list of projects continues with helping the NRPA plant native species at riparian buffer demonstration sites in Sleepy Hole Park and Constant’s Wharf Park and Marina.

Some of the students prefer labor over sitting in a classroom.

“You’re going out in nature and working with your hands,” said KFHS senior Alexis Williamson, 18. “It’s much easier, and you’re helping the earth.”

These teenagers are actively working on issues facing Hampton Roads, such as sea level rise. Beale is leading a campaign to consult with local experts and Hampton Roads officials to discuss measuring methods.

The students will measure sea level rise in the Nansemond River and develop a plan to study the effects on life in the estuary in collaboration with other organizations.

“Humans don’t recognize how much impact we put into it, so when the sea levels do rise, we want to take precautions with good studies to measure how far it’s going up and how steady,” Beale said.

Sophomore Jack Van Straten, 15, recently conducted an experiment on a “living shoreline” he planted at Sleepy Hole Park for his Eagle Scout project. His experiment compared the native species of plants in his project to other sections of shoreline ravaged by invasive plant species like phragmites.

That experiment was submitted to the Tidewater Science and Engineering Fair, which will be held at Old Dominion University this March. He said he was surprised by how “barren” the shoreline was from invasive species.

“There was no life in the area of phragmites, whereas the living shoreline had different types of grasses and crabs scurrying around,” he said.

Junior Baxley Lockhart, 16, is planning to build “Taylor floats” to grow oysters for a section of the Nansemond River designated by the NRPA.

“They clear the water of pollution,” Baxley said. “Since all of the industries have created more pollution, and with more industries being built in this area of Hampton Roads, we need more oysters to help the water quality.”

Each of these projects starts and ends with the students themselves.

“That’s what learning is all about,” Bangley said. “They’re learning by doing, and they’re becoming better stewards of the community in the process.”