By Tracy Robillard
SAVANNAH, Ga. - Inside a colorful, decorated classroom at Marshpoint Elementary School, Brian Moore, a regulatory specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District, poured a gallon of water over a row of sponges.
"We use sponges to represent wetlands because they absorb and filter water," Moore explained to a group of third-graders. "Wetlands filter water so that it's clean for us to drink."
The sponges are part of a floodplain model the corps uses in public outreach events to teach the functions of wetlands. The model ties in with the Corps' Regulatory program, which oversees permitting for any projects that might impact streams, rivers and wetlands under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
As the sponges grew plump with water, the excess flowed down the model into a simulated river channel, then drained into a bucket that represented the Atlantic Ocean. The children looked on with curiosity.
"But then people start moving in, and new developments go up, and people want to expand - they need to build houses, hospitals, schools, roads and bridges," Moore said, as he placed tiny toy houses next to the river bed.
"And then we need to build grocery stores and parking lots and other facilities for us to use," he said, removing the sponges from the model and replacing them with a toy storefront building and miniature cars.
"So what's missing from the picture now?" he asked.
The children raised their hands.
"The wetlands are gone," one said.
"They can't absorb the water anymore," said another.
To demonstrate, Moore poured another gallon of water over the model. Within a few seconds, water flooded the river channel and washed the toy houses down the drain.
The children shrieked with excitement. "The houses are flooding! The water is too high!" they said.
"So what can we do to fix the problem?" Moore asked.
The children's responses were unanimous - put the wetlands back.
Moore used this scenario to explain the Corps of Engineers' role in issuing permits under the Regulatory program.
"My job is to work with the public when they want to build something to make sure we find the right balance between what people need and what the environment needs," he told the class. "We try to avoid any impacts to wetlands if at all possible. If we absolutely can't avoid it, then we try to make the impact as small as possible. And then we make sure that we make up for any impacts we made by restoring or protecting a wetland somewhere else."
In addition to the model, the students got to see and touch pieces of animal fur, snake skins, deer antlers, and sharks teeth.
"We're demonstrating the types of animals that live in the various ecosystems in Georgia, and we're telling them about how we have to consider habitat and endangered species when we issue permits," said Regulatory Specialist Donald Hendrix, who led the show-and-tell activity. He said the children particularly liked the sharks' teeth.
The presentation was part of a unit of study the third-grade class is doing on Georgia ecosystems.
"In third grade, students have to learn about the regions and habitats of Georgia, ecosystems, our natural resources, the interdependence of our indigenous plants and animals, as well as preservation/conservation efforts," said Carole Foran, a third grade teacher at Marshpoint Elementary.
"Through your [the corps'] presentation, children were engaged in hands-on, age appropriate activities," Foran said. "It also provided meaningful opportunities for them to recognize career possibilities in your field.They don't realize there are people whose jobs are focused on the environment."
Moore and Hendrix also talked with students about careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM.
While the children have a long way to go before they enter the workforce, a few of them said they wanted to be scientists. One child even mentioned that he wanted to be a herpetologist, which he already knew was a person who studies reptiles.