4-H sea monkeys empowered to be part of the solution

Youth problem solving, critical thinking and decision making inspired by local fruit.

At the 2013 Michigan State University Extension Fall Extension Conference, participants in the Water Availability and Efficiency workshop learned more about predicted challenges to the global environment:

Looking at the projected statistics, one answer appears to be involving youth leaders.  4-H staff involved with MSU Extension are encouraging youth to use their critical thinking caps to help solve these important community issues.

By being part of the decision-making process, in the area of clean water stewardship, youth and adults can learn more about preserving Michigan’s precious soil and water resources. They can assist in keeping our beaches, shorelines and rich water ecosystems clean.

These stewardship efforts help create a clean environment that promote healthy living. Getting kids outside in the natural environment lowers the risk of chronic disease and illnesses. It increases a family’s disposable income by reducing medical expenses and the number of days missed from school and work. In the end, it leads to lower long-term medical costs for families and communities.

Aside from this, involving youth in this type of systems perspective decision-making enhances community resiliency and public health. Using scientific evidence to protect the environment creates a ripple effect. The first drop is the training that offers the transfer of valuable skills. Spreading out from this is a well-trained, financially responsible workforce, with youth using their newly learned skills to find jobs or start a new business. The third ripple is a wave of increased businesses locating in Michigan. This boosts local tax bases and creates community vitality.

A great example of youth science innovation that helped to solve a difficult community challenge came from Faith Peppers, Director of Public Affairs at the University of Georgia Extension recently.  

In Faith’s hometown, 170 beach water health advisories were issued over the course of a year. Most of the beach closures were linked to high levels of Enterococcus bacteria (normally associated with the fecal matter of warm-blooded animals). Working with the Coastal Resources Division (CRD) and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Glynn County Senior 4-H “Sea Monkeys” began an investigation to determine the source of the harmful bacteria. They started by brainstorming and experimenting with oranges to determine if they could be used to track the flow of the local marsh tidal creeks. They wanted to see if it was possible for the harmful bacteria to travel from the tidal marshes to the local beaches.

Within a few hours of dropping 280 oranges at various sites along the major tidal creeks, the fruit began showing up on area beaches. They repeated results with two additional drops, and used Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers to document the exact location of every beached orange. They spent hundreds of hours combing area beaches and kayaking along the tidal creeks.

Over the course of the study most of the oranges were traced back to the creek that the 4-H group thought might be the source of the beach bacteria. Working with environmental scientists the 4-Her’s were able to conclude that the creek did indeed contain Enterococcus bacteria. As it turns out, dog feces found on area beaches is believed to be contributing to the high bacteria levels and the recent beach water advisories. To address this issue, the students presented their findings to the Department of Natural Resources and the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau. Recommendations included additions to existing signs, trash cans every 100 yards, pet bag dispensers and bags with printed laws and penalties. The 4-H Club also distributed informational flyers entitled “Stoop and Scoop” to encourage locals to take an active role in maintaining the cleanliness of area beaches.

Aside from this, the club has been asked to collect weekly water samples and report their findings. They also have been assisting the United States Department of Agriculture with collecting weekly data on the Cactoblastis cactorum. By using creative methods, inquisitive minds, cutting-edge geospatial technology, state-of-the-art geographic problem solving, 280 oranges and many hours of combing area beaches, the youth were able to help solve an important community issue. They were recently recognized by the National Geographic Society, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens for their efforts.

According to Faith, giving youth the tools that they need to help solve important community concerns, can be as simple as giving them a basket of local fruit.

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