A jogger navigates past a puddle at Picnic Point. Several weeks of relentless rain has left standing water in many parts of Madison.

You may be seeing a lot more kids gathering around Wisconsin’s mud puddles these days, and their parents might actually be happy about it.

In an effort to boost science literacy, the state Department of Public Instruction is supporting a unique statewide project centered on a commodity that we have in abundance around here: water. We are daring to reimagine the science fairs that we all joined in as kids. Instead of isolated, one-off projects, we have tapped into teacher expertise and created a statewide program that we hope will make a splash at the annual Wisconsin Science Festival, Oct. 17-20.

Part of the idea is for youth to produce insights and learn alongside groups like the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Freshwater Sciences Center and Wisconsin Sea Grant. There are such an amazing variety of academic and career pathways connected to water. But the real goal of our project is to get kids excited about science. Cool experiments and the ability to impact policies with their findings are drawing in partners, teachers and students from all across the state to design and launch this project.

Water is great way to teach science. It’s something that we all connect to on a personal level. Our kids swim in it and make snowballs from it. Our farmers use it for irrigation. Water is a tangible resource, so it’s no surprise that Gov. Tony Evers made this the “year of clean drinking water” in Wisconsin. There are many ways to spark our attention to think collectively about keeping our shared water resources clean. We hope to build on the network of water stewards like this across the state to spark action at the local level to better understand water in the students’ communities.

It never hurts to start simply. Our launch project involves students designating a specific 10-square-foot area in a parking lot where water flows over as a place to begin. Marking off their research site with chalk, they would then collect repeated sweeps of the surface of their research area over time. Students can find contaminants and test the salt concentration by using a refractometer or estimate the total amount of leaves that might flow into the sewer and eventually a nearby lake from the entire parking lot. They can also study water runoff patterns as the seasons change to see how water moves toward storm drains, or to ravines or other natural areas. Once the water is studied, students can share their findings in real time with project partners to make connections to support safe Wisconsin water.

The project is being built with great input from teachers. The project is flexible by encouraging the sharing of a vast array of educators' water inquiry projects beyond the launch project. There is an opportunity for the teachers involved to present at the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers annual spring professional conference to share best practices with peers on the science that is occurring in classrooms across the state.

Despite water being all around us, we sadly take it for granted until somebody gets sick. People don’t realize that when they dump contaminants, they run off their driveways into the gutter and straight into our lakes. Preventing this carelessness is more important than ever. Due to global climate change, we are seeing a higher frequency of intense rainstorms than in the past, causing greater runoff from farms that carry nitrates and other particulates that impact water quality. And, there is the complex issue of high-capacity wells and the impact that withdrawing from them is having on groundwater sources and local bodies of water.

After our pilot program last year, we have signed up numerous schools to participate in what is essentially a massive science fair, as they share data and ideas across the state on an online Siftr.org platform and the DPI website. The dream is to have some sort of local representation in all 72 of Wisconsin’s counties in 2019-20 and for participation to grow over the next five years.

In addition, water will be a central theme of the 2019 Wisconsin Science Festival, with more than a dozen hands-on events and talks around the state. One of the festival’s signature events — "Big Ideas for Busy People" — will feature a panel of state experts including DNR assistant deputy secretary Todd Ambs and his flash talk on “The present and future of our drinking water.” Other experts will be covering topics such as invasive species, climate change, and plastic in the oceans. You can attend this free public event on Thursday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m., in the Wisconsin Discovery Building.

Wisconsin has a rich history of water. We can’t underestimate the value of the voices of our youth in environmental projects like this. Young people can motivate us all to reexamine ways to improve our community — and maybe even to splash around in a few puddles.

Kevin J. B. Anderson is the science education consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and president of the Council of State Science Supervisors. Travis Tangen is the WARF education and outreach manager, the 2019 WSST Excellence in Science Teaching recipient and project creator for the Wisconsin Science Festival. The Wisconsin Science Festival, now in its ninth year, is organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the Morgridge Institute for Research, the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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