Know Your Well Project Educating a New Generation on the Importance of Safe Drinking Water for Nebraska

By Callie Svoboda, Business and Marketing Intern, UNL Water Sciences Laboratory

As kids we often dream of what we want to be when we grow up. Maybe that’s inspired by a childhood hero or what our parents do. However, some don’t figure that out until we have experiences that mark us for life.

Bryce Christensen is a prime example. A few years ago, as a Waverly High School student, Bryce had an encounter with water that rippled into a career. Back in 2017, his science teacher introduced a new hands-on project that empowered Bryce and his peers to test drinking well water in his community. Four years later, these experiences led him down the commencement aisle to pick up bachelor’s degrees in water sciences and fisheries and wildlife from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. So, what was this project? Why has it influenced Bryce and many others to take action in their communities and future?

Funded by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, the Know Your Well Project began in 2017. It is backed by the Nebraska Water Center which focuses on helping the University of Nebraska-Lincoln become an international leader in water research, teaching, extension, and outreach. The project put power into the hands of over 160 students at 19 high schools to test the very water their communities were drinking – from Crawford in the Sandhills to Auburn in the southeastern corner. This is important because nearly 85% of the state’s residents rely on groundwater for their drinking water. Urban residents’ water is tested by municipal utilities, but one in five Nebraskans gets their drinking water from private domestic wells around the state – which are rarely tested for contaminants that can have harmful health effects on communities.

“Overall, I would that say that it has impacted me by influencing what I studied in college, and what I want to do for a career,” Bryce explained, “It (KYW project) is important to communities and schools around Nebraska because many people are not aware of some of the problems that their wells may have and how to fix them if possible.”

As the project’s manager, Christopher Olson drove nearly twenty thousand miles to train students and teachers and share his expertise and passion for the science of groundwater and drinking water. Before doing so, he had to find a way to adequately capture the attention of students and get them interested in their water. He didn't do so by putting chemistry equations up on the whiteboard but rather by initiating discussion and conversation amongst youth to instill a curiosity about the topic. Olson asked these young citizen scientists to ask themselves: "What is in our water?"

"The first step in the process,” Olson explained, “was getting students to understand why they should care about water quality and instill in their minds and hearts a sense of ownership into what they are drinking."

After taking STEM education courses at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Olson found a way to grasp students' interest and fascination with the project through introduction exercises. His go-to activity involved three test tubes that were secretly filled with chamomile tea, grape soda, and tap water. The students, under the impression that the grape soda and tea were contaminated, all responded that they would prefer to drink the clear tap water. Afterward, he told them that two of the test tubes contained drinkable substances like soda and tea and that the tap water they chose to drink contained nitrate-contaminated water. When Olson asked if they would still go with their first choice, the students reversed course.

From there, students were trained on test kits which contained portable meters and colorimeters to measure levels of atrazine, coliform bacteria, pH, conductivity, hardness, nitrate, ammonia, chloride, copper, and manganese. Some contaminants occur naturally; others are the byproduct of agricultural practices, including runoff from farm fields and livestock pens. They would independently collect and test samples from about 20 wells within 50 miles of their schools. Students collected and uploaded their data via smartphones and sent duplicate samples for validation to the Water Sciences Laboratory (WSL) on UNL’s East Campus.

In its first four years, the Know Your Well Project has empowered young citizens to become active participants in researching a topic that directly impacts them. As well as opening further interest in studying water and soil quality that could have an impact on them in their futures.

Discussions that otherwise wouldn’t have happened did due to the investment of students and educators talking about how water quality impacts their community and surrounding areas. This gave students the opportunity to initiate conversations with stakeholders, school board members, and administrators on the topic of water quality in Nebraska.

So where is Know Your Well today? In 2020, a coalition of Natural Resource Districts, state agencies, and University of Nebraska campuses joined the Nebraska Water Center in submitting a grant application to Nebraska Environmental Trust to expand the project. The proposal envisioned bringing Know Your Well into the curriculum of 500 more high school students, who would sample more than 1,000 wells. Partnerships with NRDs would boost the program’s long-term sustainability and expand public understanding around the importance of guarding Nebraska's drinking water.

While the proposal ultimately wasn’t selected for funding in 2020, the coalition is again seeking funding through the Nebraska Environmental Trust in 2021. Donors to the University of Nebraska also have the opportunity to play a role in expanding Know Your Well into more schools in Nebraska and beyond.

Laura Goracke, a science educator at Seward High School, introduced the project to her students and found that it was a great way to inspire students around water while raising their awareness of a topic that affects people on a global scale.

“They weren't just learning about something in science class. Students were able to see that this was an issue not only in Nebraska but worldwide", Goracke explained.

Meanwhile the project continues to evolve into phase III of its life, which contains an emphasis on improving communication, increasing participation, and collecting adequate data to deliver high-quality domestic well data to residents. Because Nebraskans are so reliant on groundwater and agriculture, the choices we make above ground impact our water and, sooner or later, our collective health. When done right, Know Your Well is a critical medium connecting the health of groundwater to the Nebraskans that rely on it every day.