Parkdale High School Students and UMD Team Up to Mitigate Local Flooding

Laurie Robinson - June 5, 2023

A new partnership between INFO and ARCH will educate youth in critical data science and help them become environmental stewards.

Photo of a stream

Just behind the sports field at Parkdale High School flows a stream, Briers Mill Run, that meanders and empties into the northeast branch of the Anacostia River. Small rocks line the banks. Trees bow toward the stream, creating a canopy that filters light. During heavy downpours, the stream and connected river overflow and sometimes flood the surrounding area. Parkdale students from the environmental science club (Green Club) will monitor the stream using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors as part of a research project through the University of Maryland (UMD).

The new research partnership with the College of Information Studies (INFO); the School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation (ARCH); and the Environmental Science and Policy program will assist high school students in collecting valuable data that will help the community reduce flooding. Parkdale students will monitor water levels on the field and report back to school and county authorities.

For the past three years, the interdisciplinary research team has been using IoT sensors to capture live, ongoing measures of water quality and quantity to mitigate stormwater runoff from several stream outfalls across the University of Maryland campus. Working with Parkdale is part of the team’s effort to expand stormwater sensor data use by local communities downstream of the university. The Riverdale Park community and Parkdale sit approximately two miles from the campus and their waterways are impacted by the university’s development activities. Any pollutants or debris that enters the water upstream flows downstream into these areas.

In addition, ongoing infrastructure development, including roadways, buildings, and the new Purple Line metro station, may adversely affect the local, natural Anacostia Watershed’s ability to support heavy rainfalls, which will lead to more flooding in neighborhoods surrounding the campus.

Athletes and Green Club Members Collaborate

For the first phase of the project, the Green Club will work with the soccer and football teams to assess the current environmental health and status of the athletic field and adjacent stream. Their data collection will first enable the community to develop a baseline understanding of how existing Parkdale athletic fields may be affecting rainfall and stormwater runoff. They will test water levels during “normal” and extreme rainfall events, and also test water quality using sensors that analyze certain water characteristics (e.g., nitrate concentration—higher indicates higher levels of pollutants). These data will help them better understand how the use of the sports field impacts stormwater runoff.

The students will also collect stormwater data from a few simple systems, such as commercially available, “backyard” weather stations, which will provide detailed data about Parkdale neighborhood conditions over time at a higher resolution than state and national weather systems, which typically cover larger city- and county-level areas. The local place-based focus will help attune Parkdale students to climate issues specific to their community. The data that they collect will also equip them with ideas on actions that they might take to inform local municipal and school board leaders how to design and build more sustainable athletic fields that can reduce stormwater runoff.

The data gathering can also be used as a spur to connecting Parkdale activity with students attending other schools upstream along Briers Mill Run and across the stream with William Wirt Middle School (whose students often later attend Parkdale as they progress in their secondary school years.)

“We want to help kids at the school to collaborate to outfit their sports field with stormwater management tools to help them measure the water quantity and quality of stream,” says lead investigator Tamara Clegg, INFO associate professor. “We want to help them navigate the tensions of outfitting the sports field so it works best for the sport and for the water quality in their community. We want to help them maximize both.”

Critical Data Literacy

Most data science education models focus only on technical STEM concepts related to data collection and analysis. This research project will teach students critical data science, which emphasizes data literacy concepts that are taught in a community context, with a focus on empowering youth to leverage data for their own personal and community goals.

“Data is always social and political,” says Clegg. “Data is collected about people within social systems and in ways that have significant impacts on people’s lives. We therefore must ensure that our policies and practices with data are best suited for the well being of all. Often people in minoritized and resource-constrained communities are most significantly negatively impacted from data use in society, such as being over-surveilled, relying on ‘free’ systems (like free wi-fi) that collect additional information about users, not having the same access to data, and not being counted in data used to garner resources.”

Critical data literacy includes the social, political, and historical aspects of data practices and recognizes the value of making youth stewards of their data.

Students will attend events hosted by Metamorphosis, a local nonprofit, to engage and co-design with their local community members most directly affected by stormwater mitigation near Parkdale. These sessions will ensure that the program is transparent, communicative, and responsive to community needs and expectations. They will also meet with local municipalities through the Environmental Finance Center’s Sustainable Maryland program—an education, technical assistance and certification program for municipalities in Maryland that want to go green, save money, and take steps to enhance and sustain quality of life. This type of civic engagement will promote their critical data science learning. Young people will be gathering, analyzing, visualizing and communicating data and insights from data, so they will be learning through engagement. But they will also be learning more about the civic and political aspects of data—who are the decision makers with data, what are their goals, how to communicate data relevant to learners’ communities to those audiences.

“We want the youth to be ambassadors. It’s not that they’re just collecting this data for their own investigations,” says Clegg. “We want them to be able to advocate to their school leaders and to their municipality about the water quality and quantity in their community.”

A critical component of the program will also involve training new stewards from neighboring middle and elementary schools so that they can continue to expand and improve the work and ensure the sustainability and continuity of program goals and objectives.

Ultimately, this program aims to create a new generation of STEM ambassadors who are responsive to their community’s needs and equipped to make positive changes in their local contexts.