The 10 fifth grade students in the FIRST LEGO League Team at Greenbrier Intermediate School in Chesapeake, Virginia received the following challenge in the fall of 2005: "Choose an ocean or sea activity or resource and trace its impact on our oceans’ health, biodiversity, and productivity. Learn what the experts are doing in this area, and identify a challenge they are facing. Create an innovative solution to help them improve the use of this resource or activity, while minimizing the negative impact on our oceans for present and future generations. Finally, share what you have learned with others." The team's response? They created a garden. "A garden?" you might ask. "How can a garden improve the health of an ocean?" Well, if it's the right kind — namely, a rain garden — it can make a big difference.
Students dove into an exploration of water issues. They interviewed key community leaders active in protecting water resources, including the president of a local corporation committed to monitoring and improving water quality of oceans and a city official responsible for the local storm drainage system. They also toured the Chesapeake Water Treatment plant for a firsthand look at what it takes to clean sewage and stormwater before they're released into natural waterways. As a result, they learned that stormwater – precipitation that runs off roofs, roads and other surfaces – is full of pollutants that contaminate rivers and oceans, and thus decided to focus their project on stormwater management. Further digging led them to rain gardens as an innovative and natural solution for reducing stormwater impact.
Team coach Karen Arnett briefly describes how the LEGO (Learning Environmental Gardening with each Other) rain garden works. “The area collects water runoff from the school building, permitting the sediment in the water to be filtered and slowly absorbed by the soil. A nutrient filtering process takes place as the water comes in contact with soil and the roots of the trees, shrubs, and vegetation planted in the rain garden."
Once the team had chosen the project, students moved on to the planning and development process. They organized their research findings into a presentation for the community and sought partners for making the garden a reality. In the process, they built their communication skills and some important partnerships. They received donations of wooden bridges and some plant materials, plus buy-in from parents, teachers, school facility staff, and community members. "We got a great deal of support from our Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent and Master Gardeners. Finding local experts in the area was a big help," says team coach John Sammons. "It’s very important to get your whole community involved."
The garden covers approximately 6400 square feet, and is surrounded by steppingstones and bridges to let students explore and observe the area without compacting the soil and muddying their shoes. As with all rain gardens, soil was removed from the site to create a shallow depression to help capture the stormwater runoff. Sand, compost, and lighter topsoil were added to improve drainage.
Students chose a variety of hardy native perennials, shrubs, and trees adapted to fluctuating moisture conditions. As a side theme that allowed them to participate in the America's Anniversary Garden campaign to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement, they selected plants with red, white, and blue flowers:
red - cardinal flower, swamp milkweed, copper Iris
white - turtle head, white boneset, Virginia sweetspire, button bush, water plantain
blue - blue lobelia, blue flag
They also added roses, received through NGA’s 2007 “Remember Me” Rose School Garden Awards, to a berm surrounding the garden.
"The LEGO Rain Garden is a responsible and innovative solution for protecting oceans and water quality," says Karen. "Students took this opportunity to become stewards of a small piece of their environment, with the understanding and pride of knowing that their actions have a positive impact on the health of the Earth's oceans. They were able to 'Think Globally, Act Locally.'"
The Greenbrier Intermediate LEGO Rain Garden is more than a service project. It’s also a hands-on outdoor extension of the learning environment for all 3rd, 4th and 5th graders. Teachers and students observe plant adaptations, and can witness the life cycles of blooming plants and the creatures — from birds to butterflies and frogs to dragonflies — that find a home there. Although the water will stand for less than three days to prevent mosquito breeding, there are opportunities for water sampling activities. Math students can collect data to determine plant growth rates and the angle of the sun. And since the rain garden will consist of plants indigenous to Virginia, Social Studies classes can study the same flora that Thomas Jefferson did.
What about the challenges they faced in installing and promoting the use of rain gardens? John observes that rain gardens don’t fit into most homeowners’ visions of a traditional landscape, so some of their plant choices weren’t readily available. "Consumer preference drives the market, and a majority of people choose quick-blooming annuals over native perennials for instant landscaping appeal. This can make it hard to find appropriate plants. We had to special order many for this project.” But Karen adds, “With student-built benches and bridges providing areas within the rain garden where visitors will be able to sit, observe, and reflect, the harmony will inspire everyone who comes to experience it." And that may help win rain garden converts!
Although it takes time to change public perception of landscaping practices, this group of students is sold on the benefits of planting a sustainable, environmentally friendly landscape. As validation for their efforts, the students received the 2005 Education Award from the Chesapeake Environmental Improvement Council, which included a visit from Philippe Pierre Cousteau of Earth Echo International, Inc.
Special Note: FIRST LEGO League is a result of an alliance between FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and the LEGO Company. Guided by adult mentors and their own imaginations, FLL students solve real-world engineering challenges, develop important life skills, and learn to make positive contributions to society. Each year's challenge focuses on a different current issue. This is an international program for children ages 9 to14 that combines a hands-on interactive robotics program with a sports-like atmosphere. Teams of up to 10 players focus on teambuilding, problem solving, creativity, and analytical thinking. Visit here for more information about FLL.