Cutchogue East wins $5,000 in water quality challenge

Cutchogue East Elementary School has won a $5,000 grant through the 2020 Long Island Water Quality Challenge with an idea cooked up last year by sixth-graders in the school’s STEAM lab. 

Before COVID-19 forced the school to go remote, the entire sixth-grade department brainstormed ideas to combat nitrogen pollution, according to STEAM coordinator Meghan Tepfenhardt. Students worked in groups of four or five in a “writer’s workshop model,” reading up on the problem and potential solutions before coming up with their own fix as a team. 

“So that solution included selecting a site for whatever they wanted to do, whether it was a rooftop garden, or whatever it is that they came up with from their research,” Ms. Tepfenhardt, who managed the project, recalled. “They had to put together a quote — we had a local landscape architect that gave us kind of general quotes — and they pulled from that resource. And then they just created a plan.” 

Two of those plans were selected and entered into the competition, sponsored by the Long Island Regional Planning Council in partnership with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. One proposal, a “rain garden” with indigenous plants resistant to deer and drought, ultimately won the grant. 

The grant funds, initially frozen due to the pandemic, were released to the school last week.

“To make this stuff happen in the last year was a little bit of a challenge, but it was certainly worth it,” Ms. Tepfenhardt said. 

The plan was finalized with help from the Suffolk County Soil & Water Conservation District, which offered feedback, suggesting plants and a location — optimizing the space by selecting an area on school grounds with excess runoff. The district’s AP Environmental students helped install the garden two weeks ago and it was officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony last week. 

“It’s used for educational opportunities really, for our building … just helping students to understand the value of recharging water,” Ms. Tepfenhardt said. Students will help maintain the garden, which will be used as an outdoor learning space.

She expressed gratitude to the Long Island Regional Planning Council, emphasizing that the challenge was “well done” and “thoughtful about what’s age-appropriate and what’s authentic for kids.”

“It’s definitely something I want to return to in terms of, you know, an integrated project base unit where there’s a huge literacy component, there’s a science component, there’s a hands-on component, there’s a design component,” she said.  

The school has a couple of other gardens that are already used for education, including a butterfly garden — “that’s just pretty much milkweed” — and a vegetable garden. 

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