Know Your Well program empowers students to understand local water quality

People working together on science

Access to quality water is critical for both the ranch and feedyard. Testing well water not only clues ranchers into potential problems with their water, but it can also indicate whether it is safe for people in their community to consume as well. Know Your Well is a program used to test well water across Nebraska at no cost to the community, while teaching local high school students valuable skills.

The Know Your Well Program

From its inception in 2016, Know Your Well has brought citizen science into classrooms not only to increase domestic well water testing throughout Nebraska, but also to highlight the vulnerability of groundwater quality and the importance of safe drinking water for rural residents and communities. Know Your Well is a Nebraska Environmental Trust-funded program training high school students to sample and test well water quality.

In the past seven years, Know Your Well has been implemented in more than 28 school districts throughout the state. The program is coordinated through the school’s agricultural and environmental science classes in partnership with local Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) and the Water Sciences Laboratory at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL). Other major program sponsors include Papio-Missouri River NRD and the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Participating schools receive educational materials, sampling equipment, colorimetric testing kits, and training to conduct domestic well sampling and water testing. The teachers receive a stipend and participating students can receive scholarships from UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources as well as several participating NRDs.

Through Know Your Well, students survey and test local, privately-owned wells for nitrate, nitrite, metals, anions, pesticides, and coliform bacteria. Participants test these water quality metrics in the classroom and collect a second sample that is sent to the Water Sciences Laboratory for quality-assured testing. The results from the Water Sciences Laboratory tests are supplied back to the participating schools, who then communicate the results to the well owners. 

Students are encouraged to compare their test kit measurements with the laboratory tests and develop research projects about local well water quality that include observations made during sampling. Many classes present their findings at science fairs, Nebraska Junior Academy of Science meetings, and city council and NRD board meetings.

For many rural school districts, students will test their own family’s well. This provides valuable data for their own use and makes the activity more engaging for the students because they have a personal stake in the test results.

Sara Brock, graduate research assistant with Know Your Well, spoke on the impact the program has for students and the community. “The community is giving the students the chance to be trained and practice science literacy for decision-making using the real-world quantitative values of their local resource,” Brock stated. “Know Your Well supports learning and research in their immediate community while training students to make decisions on data that relates to them.”

If a well owner was to send a sample to a commercial lab, the same combination of testing would cost about $300 to $400. Know Your Well provides water quality testing to well owners for free, while allowing well owners to receive high-quality results and providing experiential learning opportunities for students. Well-owner reports include recommended guidelines for drinking water. If a well owner is interested in being involved in Know Your Well, they can ask their local high school or NRD if the program is active in their area. 

Know Your Well looks for future growth opportunities

Know Your Well has continued to grow over the years. Each new phase has allowed the program to expand in scope and impact through various grant opportunities. Know Your Well is now entering its third stage, led by the Papio-Missouri River NRD with partnerships between the University of Nebraska at Kearney, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Chadron State College, the Nebraska Water Center and Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, and 15 NRDs. Grant funding for phase three is primarily from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy. The latest grant provides funding to equip over 50 Nebraska schools with Know Your Well training, kits, and laboratory test results to highlight domestic well water quality through multiple NRDs. 

Over 1,000 private wells will eventually be tested. Students collect land use and other data to help determine vulnerability to contamination. Well owners are supplied with test results and provided with information to help them evaluate their water quality. Know Your Well is helping well owners and future water scientists in Nebraska know more about ground water in our state.

Going digital

The third phase includes additional science communication and educational resources for the program, as well as a partnership with UNL’s School of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) to develop a new mobile app that improves data collection for students and teachers, called a progressive web application (PWA). The traditional pen and paper data collection methods work but are cumbersome, time-consuming, and increase chances of error in reporting.  A CSE senior design team has been working with the Know Your Well research team throughout the 2022-2023 academic year to design this custom system. 

Improving digital data collection will help Know Your Well make their data more accessible in the future. The long-term goal is to develop a digital dashboard that synthesizes the data collected. The dashboard would make water quality data publicly accessible while still maintaining well owner confidentiality. This will help communities access current water quality data that is relevant to their specific part of the state.

Know Your Well benefits students and their communities

Know Your Well is currently implemented in 15 NRDs across the state and is growing to an interdisciplinary team of nine different agencies. As the program continues to expand, Brock and the team are focused on providing valuable experiences for students. They plan to provide additional science communication opportunities for schools to share their data at state-wide scientific conferences.

“The goal is to make this as inexpensive, relevant, and engaging for local communities and schools to run as possible, and to make environmental chemistry and water quality data accessible,” Sara Brock shared.

Know Your Well is evolving to represent the truly interdisciplinary nature of hydrogeological sciences and management while opening doors for students to visualize many possible careers in groundwater and natural resources sciences. Brock summarized the value to both students and their communities, saying, “By participating in a real science project that generates real data, and by evaluating the different methods of ‘classroom’ versus ‘lab’ science, students can see those things aren’t so different. They get the opportunity to communicate that data to their peers and community.”

Know Your Well is an educational gem for Nebraska’s natural resources and on the forefront of citizen science research aimed at domestic well water quality. As more schools participate, the team can grow groundwater science literacy at the high school level and observe the impact student scientists have on local management practices and the adoption of conservation behaviors. By giving students the tools and agency to participate in water quality discussions now, they may become leaders in groundwater stewardship later in their professional and personal lives.