Cooperative Extension associate ignites high school students’ interest in science, protecting water supplies
In his book, “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell coined the term "connector," referring to “a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack [... for] making friends and acquaintances." Connectors are, according to Gladwell, able to galvanize others and possess “... a special gift for bringing the world together.”
Erin Ling is just such a person.
The Virginia Cooperative Extension associate and coordinator of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program in the Virginia Tech Department of Biological Systems has a unique ability to draw connections between ideas, concepts, and people who, by coming together in partnership, spark new possibilities. This is just what she did when she met Rachelle Rasco ’92, the STEM agriculture lab manager for Carroll County High School, during a teachers program nearly four years ago.
“We met and hit it off, and pretty quickly we started working together to figure out how to adapt the Virginia Household Water Quality Program well-testing program to make it possible for high school students to participate,” said Ling ’00, with her characteristic enthusiasm. “We knew that we could tie the material to what they were already learning in their science classes, but show them why it matters in a very real, tangible way – through their families' drinking water.”
The Virginia Household Water Quality Program (VAHWQP) is an Extension project that provides affordable water testing and education to residents of the commonwealth. Since Ling and Rasco, with the assistance of Hannah Scherer, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and a specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension, and Randy Webb ’07, ’18, an agricultural instructor and FFA advisor for Carroll County High School, teamed up in 2015, the program has increased student awareness of water quality issues and stimulated interest in science, technology, engineering, and math educational programs.
“The students come to Virginia Tech to see how testing is done and how it is applied,” said Rasco. “They learn about pH, bacteria, and water chemistry. When they go into other classes, they are more competent. This learning about water permeates everything, but it starts at a personal level because it's their drinking water.”
After collecting water from their wells or springs, students bring their water samples to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Biological Systems Engineering water quality lab in the state-of-the-art Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1. There, they spend the day conducting hands-on lab activities and listening to presentations from water quality and food safety researchers and well drilling contractors.
While the students are on campus, lab staff begin analyzing their household water samples for total coliform bacteria, E. coli, pH, nitrate, total dissolved solids, and fluoride. Portions of samples are prepared and delivered to the environmental and water resources engineering lab for additional analysis for lead, arsenic, copper, iron, manganese, hardness, sulfate, and sodium.
Working with experts like Marc Edwards, University Distinguished Professor with the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and other researchers who helped to uncover metals contamination in household water in places like Flint, Michigan, has been invaluable to VAHWQP. The testing for high schoolers and their families is provided free of charge thanks to donations from the Virginia Lakes and Watersheds Association and the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project.
“One in five Virginians rely on wells or springs,” said Ling. "About 80 percent of these folks have never tested or have tested only once. We know that testing and understanding their results leads many people to take action to improve their water system or install treatment devices, so this is another way to reach more families with our program. Working with the high school students allows them build on what they are learning and also helps their families test their water.”
Since 1989, VAHWQP researchers have analyzed approximately 29,000 samples. The results have been sobering, with total coliform bacteria present in 40 percent of samples; E. coli bacteria in 9 percent, indicating the presence of human or animal waste; and perhaps most alarmingly, lead in 16 percent of the water samples.
“Flint, Michigan, inspired us to care,” said Webb, who earned his Ph.D. this year from Virginia Tech in agricultural leadership and community education. “Now, the kids see what’s important about this because this is their water and their lives. We make it personal for them. And when you make it personal, they remember it better.”
Ling, Rasco, and Webb see water testing as both a personal and a pertinent conduit to the world of science – one with direct health implications for the students and their families. But the trio is also guided by a shared, long-term mission to foster students’ understanding of and passion for STEM subjects while encouraging them to pursue a college education.
“We are dedicated to experiential learning. This is why our kids do well in post-secondary education,” said Webb. “They get to see, touch, feel, and experience what we are teaching them in the classroom through experiences like this. And, when you collaborate with a university like Virginia Tech, you bring the most innovative research and minds into your school.”
Since 2015, more than 225 students have participated in the educational tours and testing. In 2018, Ling expanded the program to include high schools in Washington and Grayson counties, reaching an additional 55 students and families. The VAHWQP coordinator is also working with the Virginia Tech’s Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences chapter to encourage members to work with the high school students during their visits to campus.
“We have had kids go on to Virginia Tech, UVA, and into science majors. By the time they reach college, these kids have had a breadth of experiences,” said Rasco.
Isabelle “Izzy” Largen ’22, who is pursuing a degree in water: resources, policy, and management, is one of those students. She entered Ling’s program as a 10th grade student at Carroll County High School.
“When we visited Virginia Tech, we saw a model of groundwater and learned how pollution works. We also learned about drills, how wells are made, and regulations,” said Largen, whose family home is more than 100 years old and is fed by a spring. “I learned that water can be contaminated with bacteria from sources such as deer, dogs, and other animals. And, if your pH is really high or really low, it can affect your pipes, causing them to degrade and leach metals into water.”
The experience informed Largen’s desire to attend Virginia Tech and her choice of majors. She is minoring in Arabic and aspires to work with water policy and infrastructure in the Middle East.
“This program helped bring it all together for me, all of my interest in science. We also learned how to present, which helped with public speaking,” said Largen. “If I hadn’t met Ms. Rasco and Erin Ling, I wouldn’t be here now. They helped me dip my toes into different aspects of science, and they are willing to help you in any way they can. They connect you with anyone and anything.”
Webb is particularly proud that many of his graduates are not only well-prepared for college, they are pursuing impressive careers because of the program.
“Several of our students have come to Virginia Tech,” he said. “One is now with USDA, and another is an Extension agent. Several are working for well-known private companies.”
No one is more proud than Ling, whose passion for science and gift for connections are at the nexus of the program.
“Many kids can't even imagine all the possibilities that are out there,” she said. “I feel it should be part of our mission as a land-grant university to give them the opportunity to see what we have to offer and what they can become.”
— Written by Amy Painter