Little Sugar Creek becomes a living lab for students

Environmental scientist Reed Perkins works in a stream with Queens student Darryl White in this 2014 photo.
Environmental scientist Reed Perkins works in a stream with Queens student Darryl White in this 2014 photo. Queens University of Charlotte

Dozens of Charlotte students immersed themselves in science this academic year by studying Little Sugar Creek, the stream near uptown that is recovering from decades of pollution.

The study’s goal was to learn how Little Sugar’s condition changes as it flows south. But the real purpose was to connect students with their local watershed through hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.

“The objective was to change how students think about science and about the watershed in which they live,” said Reed Perkins, the Queens University of Charlotte environmental scientist who led the study.

And how they think about the other people who share it, Perkins added. In the course of their work, he said, elementary school students from uptown crossed paths with Queens students and teenagers from southern Mecklenburg County.

The diversity among them became apparent in the field, where some students worried about getting their clothes dirty.

“I see science as like learning how to swim – the only way to learn it is by jumping in the pool,” Perkins said. “It’s vital to get kids in the field if they’re going to get excited about science.”

The Duke Energy Foundation granted $21,000 to pay for the project. Queens, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services and Discovery Place participated.

The 150 students came from CMS’ First Ward Elementary, Sedgefield Middle, South Mecklenburg High and Queens.

Their findings will be added to official county data on Little Sugar. The data show that the creek’s water chemistry, which indicates pollutants, degrades as it flows south from uptown.

But the biology of the stream, such as the bugs that live on the bottom, doesn’t follow that pattern. As Little Sugar winds through Freedom Park, aquatic life is most robust.

That means the millions of dollars the state and Mecklenburg County invested a few years ago to restore the creek to its old contours through the park was “not just window dressing,” Perkins said.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender