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Trash-tography: San Diego 4th Graders Take on Water Pollution

Trash-tography – San Diego 4th Graders Take on Water Pollution

by Kristen Hurst, Indraneel (Neel) Kasmalker, Carly Ellis, and Kirstin Skadberg

It was a beautiful fall day in San Diego. Meaning…it was hot! We were walking down the hill from Carver Elementary toward Chollas Creek with a class of 20 bright and curious fourth graders. It was just the kind of field trip kids need more of these days. Out in the sunshine, surrounded by trees and plants, the birds were chirping and the children were laughing. What was the purpose of this happy adventure? Measuring trash.

These young scientists were attempting to answer the questions: How much trash is in our neighborhood creek, and how does it affect our local environment?

The kids set out to answer these questions as part of a Thriving Earth Exchange community science project. In addition to the students, San Diego’s Thriving Earth Exchange team includes Kristen Hurst, Indraneel (Neel) Kasmalker, Carly Ellis, and Kirstin Skadberg. Kristen is the 2019/2020 “Teacher of the Year” at Carver Elementary. Neel is a Stanford scientist working at the Institute for Computational & Mathematical Engineering. Carly is a field researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. And Kirstin runs Kirstin Skadberg Consulting, a San Diego environmental consulting company that also specializes in teaching and training.

Thriving Earth Exchange is a program of the American Geophysical Union that connects community leaders with scientists to advance local priorities related to climate change, natural resources, and natural hazards. The needs of the community are the driving force behind each project. The community leader sets the goals and works with a project coordinator from the Thriving Earth Exchange to assemble a team. The scientists chosen to join the team provide support and establish a scientific basis for the project.

When Kristen, the community leader, reached out to Thriving Earth Exchange in December 2018 to suggest a potential project for addressing the trash problem in Chollas Creek, she and the staff engaged in a detailed scoping process to identify the problem, list the available community resources, and chart out a plan. Kristen listed two main objectives for this project: first, to raise awareness in the broader community about the environmental problems ailing Chollas Creek, and second, to engage her students in this effort and develop them as environmental stewards for their neighborhoods.

Once the project was formalized by the Thriving Earth Exchange, Neel was assigned as the project coordinator. He and Kristen sought out local scientists in San Diego who would like to join the team. The criteria: Do you have experience with environmental problems? And do you enjoy working with kids? With support from Thriving Earth Exchange staff, they found the perfect scientist partners: Kirstin and Carly. A couple of fun conversations later, the team was in place.

By April 2019, the team had a general plan of action. First, we would develop a method for quantifying trash pollution that would be safe and accessible, and fun, for kids. Next, we would lead student-visits to several locations along the creek to collect trash data. Finally, the students would put on a public exhibition in their neighborhoods to highlight the environmental problems of the Chollas Creek and advocate for trash cleanup and legislation.

Setting the Scene

The Chollas Creek watershed encompasses a number of San Diego communities, most of which are characterized as “disadvantaged communities” by the California Department of Water Resources. In this urbanized area, the creek has increasingly been degraded by water pollution, constricted by concrete channels and culverts, and overgrown by invasive and nuisance plants.

Some sections of the creek have been categorized by the Regional Water Quality Control Board as “impaired water bodies” because of the presence of pollutants such as trash, bacteria, and metals. These pollutants have negative effects on the local community and can pose serious health risks.

Local non-profit organizations like Groundwork San Diego and Canyonlands are working to improve conditions in the Chollas Creek watershed. In particular, they are developing a plan to create a regional park extending along major reaches of the creek. This work is largely funded by grants, and two important things are needed to win those grants: a strong community voice advocating for change, and data showing where the Creek most needs help.

The Trash-tography project, created by the 4th graders at Carver, will help meet both of those needs.

Meeting the Class

I’m not sure we scientists knew what to expect meeting Kristen’s class for the first time. After all, we are used to presenting to college students and adults. We were thrilled by the polite, intelligent, and lively welcome the kids gave us! During our first meeting, we gave a presentation about the Chollas Creek watershed and answered some very thoughtful questions. Then the kids got to work deciding how our project would move forward.

We decided to measure trash in the creek using a visual survey, since that would not require a lot of equipment. We found a Rapid Trash Assessment visual survey protocol established by the California State Water Resources Control Board Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program (SWAMP). In addition, we decided that photographing the trash would be the safest way to document our observations. These monitoring methods led the students to their project name: Trash-tography.

Controlled Chaos in the Field

For our first field trip we visited a branch of Chollas Creek located in an open space less than a mile from the school. We adults thought we had the study methods all worked out, but as with every plan, there were unexpected challenges.

How do you get 20 fourth graders to line up in 10 teams along a 100-foot measuring tape in a park? It’s not as easy as you might think, but with a little extra focus the kids managed to get it done. Each team had a clipboard with a paper copy of the trash assessment survey. The three adults on the trip floated amongst the teams to help them think through the trash survey questions for the first time. Questions that seemed simple in the classroom turned out to be tougher to answer consistently in the field. But overall, the kids did a great job and we overcame the hiccups together.

Later, when the technical advisory team (i.e. the grown-ups) took a look at the data the kids had collected, we identified even more challenges. First, we had to compile the data into a digital spreadsheet. This was not straightforward because different teams had interpreted some questions and answers a little differently. Thus, consolidating the survey results was time-consuming!

In the end, we decided to standardize the answers and make data compilation easier using Google forms. We created our own Google form that included categorical answers instead of just blanks. The kids could access it using iPads in the field. We developed and tested the form in preparation for our next field trip with the kids.

Things Fall into Place

Having learned from and adjusted our method, our second field trip went much more smoothly.  This time the kids knew their teams and were able to help us get the tape measure in place quickly. They were familiar with the questions, and the digital format of the survey was very helpful in keeping the kids engaged!  The kids also used the iPads to take photographs of the creek portions as documentation.

When processing the data, Google forms made it easy to compile all the information and create colorful, kid-friendly graphs. This was a major win!  When we visited the classroom at a later date to debrief with the kids, Google had already done much of the work, so we could focus on deeper questions about how to interpret the data and read the graphs.

Photo Assessment in the Classroom

The kids’ third “field trip” wasn’t a field trip at all.  For this observation, Kristen and Kirstin visited a different section of Chollas Creek and took photos for the kids to assess in the classroom. We wanted to test the idea that, with “Trash-tography,” namely the photos of trash-laden creek sections, the kids could collect observations while keeping a distance from potentially harmful locations or substances.

Back in the classroom, we had more lessons to learn and the kids got to be problem solvers, once again. We planned to have them look at the photos on their iPads and fill out the Google form. With only one iPad per team, toggling back and forth between the photo and form proved challenging, but the kids were remarkable at improvising. We didn’t get as far as we had hoped with the photo assessment that day, but the problem-solving session itself proved so valuable we counted the visit as a win. It was a great chance to learn about overcoming real hurdles during the scientific process!

Next Steps

Our next planned activity was to take the kids on a final field trip to a location along the creek that we could safely access with a bus trip. We planned to use our now tried-and-true iPad-based method to collect data and photographs. In-person activities are on hold for now to make sure everyone stays healthy during the virus outbreak…in the meantime, we’re working of the virtual side of the project. You will soon find our methods on Public Lab. We look forward to getting back outside with students when public health guidelines allow

The new plan, now, is to publish our Trash-tography methods on Public Lab, a non-profit organization that facilitates collaborative, open-source research geared toward communities, environmental monitoring, and advocacy. We’d like for others to try replicating this study in their own communities and give our group feedback on how we could improve our methods.

We are still hopeful that a public gathering could be in the works later this year so the students can present their research, photographs, and results to their community members and local legislators.


Fourth-graders are incredible! We presented them with a little background information about an issue threatening their very own backyards and they proved to be passionate, resilient, and creative: They are passionate about transforming Chollas Creek and bettering their community. They are resilient when it comes to road blocks and keeping each other and their mentors in high spirits. They are creative thinkers who learn effectively when included in decision-making and problem-solving during the scientific process. This whole process just goes to show kids can learn from (and have fun with!) hands-on, applied science that makes a difference.

Kelly McCarthy subscriber

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