Students playing litter tag pretend to be birds or fish “frozen” by pollution.

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On one of the last days of the school year, Evanston beaches served as classrooms for 300 sixth-grade students from Haven Middle School. They played litter tag and picked up litter, tested the quality of water and compared the infiltration of water through sand and through a grass lawn.

The students were completing their work in Pipes & Precipitation, a course in which third- and sixth-graders at School District 65 learn the academics about the journey of water from lake to faucet. At times they turned to movement to reinforce their understanding.  

Children study the flow of water, and they learn about pollution, said Clare Tallon Ruen, founder of Pipes & Precipitation and its more artistic companion, LakeDance.

Steve Vander Ploeg, a sixth-grade science teacher at Haven, organized students into groups for litter tag, a game created by the Alliance for the Great Lakes. It takes two persons to “free” a fish or bird (student) “frozen” by human-created pollution.

“Humans push in the pollution, but they can also push it out,” said Ms. Tallon Ruen.

Sixth-graders focus on infiltration, learning about what materials allow or impede water from permeating a surface. Precipitation percolates into the soil more freely in porous sand than in a lawn covered with two-inch grass with matted roots, said Richard Lanyon, whose career at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District reflected his interest in water.

Marram grass along the dunes helps anchor the sand with its deep roots, fed by rainwater that permeates the loose sand. In a lawn, a mass of roots several inches thick impedes infiltration, Mr. Lanyon said.

“That’s why it’s important to choose native plants.” Their deep tap roots and wispy side roots essentially aerate the soil, allowing infiltration.

Ms. Tallon Ruen began teaching children about water at her children’s school, Oakton, with funding from Foundation 65 and Evanston Community Foundation. Now in its second year of a State-funded grant, Pipes & Precipitation is part of the District 65 curriculum.

Field trips – to the Evanston Water Facility on Lincoln Street for third-graders and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District plant on Howard Street for some sixth-graders – help reinforce the enormity and importance of the water’s journey. At the Evanston plant, children see lake water being drawn in and treated; at the Howard Street plant they see the other end of the urban water cycle, said Mr. Lanyon, “good water from the lake and reclaiming water from sewage.” After the water has been reclaimed, the remaining sludge is processed into a beneficial biosolid such as fertilizer, he said.

Students study the school itself. “The third-graders color a map of the school area, color-coding open spaces in green and impervious surfaces in red,” and then look for ways to improve infiltration or enhance the green spaces, said Ms. Tallon Ruen. Sixth-graders test the ground for permeability – “if water stays on the surface for 12 minutes, it is actually impermeable,” she said.

Downspouts on the outside of a school offer the possibility of directing rain into a rain garden, Ms. Tallon Ruen said – hinting at the possibility of allowing students to help design some green infrastructure.

Lake Michigan offers a nearly endless classroom. “It is one of the cleanest lakes in the world,” said Ms. Tallon Ruen. “The Native Americans called it the ‘Sweet Sea’ because the water was drinkable, not salty.” Pipes & Precipitation teaches children how water has to go through a series of filters to be useable so “they’ll understand there’s more to the system than just a faucet,” said Ms. Tallon Ruen.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...