Building a cleaner future with help of fourth grade class

When Doug Marsano heard that a fourth grade class was reaching out to King County proposing a plan to clean up the Duwamish River, he instantly wanted to be involved. Contacting the teacher and Susan Tallarico, Director of the Brightwater Education Center, they organized a plan.

“It was the perfect partnership,” Tallarico said. “We get to work with kids to enhance their learning and build their interest in conservation that will hopefully continue as they become adults.”

Marsano, a Water Quality Planner with King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division, said that WTD and King County are always looking for ways to provide information in the most appropriate way. Sometimes, the best way is to teach kids, he said.

Susan Tallarico - River Clean Up

Susan Tallarico, Director of the Brightwater Education Center, working with the fourth graders.

After hearing that the class from Stanford International School in Seattle had invited guest speakers from other agencies and companies involved with the Duwamish River clean-up efforts, Tallarico created a lesson where the students take part in a mock town hall meeting. It would be a lesson in two parts, Marsano said. Students would be able to learn more about water pollution and pollution in general while at the same time getting a civics lesson on how to get governments to act.

Breaking the class into small groups of four, Tallarico and Marsano assigned roles to each group and handed out background information on their new roles.  Some groups represented local tribes while others were representing housing developers.

Once divided into their groups, students were tasked with figuring out what role their organization played in terms of the Duwamish River pollution issues and the efforts in keeping it clean. While Tallarico and the teacher monitored, Marsano helped with questions about the technical aspect of the cleanup.

Both Tallarico and Marsano were amazed by the students’ ingenuity. Marsano said the ideas were extremely diverse and that the students were respectful but challenged each other’s viewpoints. The fourth grade students came up with a range of suggestions, from creating unique fundraising ideas for restoration, to fixing water run-off and how to use technology in the cleanup process.

“The group representing a tribe came up with an idea of having a tax on commercial fish, which could go toward restoration of the water ways,” Tallarico said. “If you like fish, you’ll want to pay a little more to keep the water clean.”

Another group representing a cruise line pitched to have cruise ships equipped with in-house waste storage, which would transform waste to energy and reduce the cruise’s pollution.

But it went beyond just a mock town hall meeting, Tallarico said. The class, Tallarico and Marsano worked to develop ideas on how the class could continue to be involved in the following year.

“They came up with what we called ‘The Great Wall of Trees’,” Tallarico said. “Hearing the plan, I thought this was an idea that we could work together on in the near future.”

The plan was to have the school and possible partner schools, adopt an area of the Duwamish River to plant a barrier of trees. The students wanted to eventually have a complete green corridor along the river that would prevent storm water from washing into the river and provide a natural filter for the water.

While the river will never be all the way clean as long as people continue to pollute, Tallarico said it was a step that could make a difference.

The students were really aware of pollution problems beyond the Duwamish River, Marsano said. By planting the trees, students were hoping to help purify air quality and beautify the riverside. But the students didn’t stop there.

They speculated about the possibility of taking their Wall of Tree plan to an actual meeting of organizations and agencies involved around the area, such as Boeing and King County. Like the partner schools, organizations would adopt sections of the river to maintain.

“It was amazing to hear what the students came up with,” Tallarico said. “Doug Marsano and I were imagining a meeting run by what would be then-fifth graders and what it would be like. Would these adults be more open to ideas when they come from 5th graders, because sometimes adults get so set in their ways and ideas.”

While what the students came up with Tallarico and Marsano are merely ideas at the moment, anything could happen in the future.

“I told the students that I hope their interest in conservation doesn’t end after the school year is over,” Tallarico said. “It will be kids like them who as adults will be making the difference.”