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Every summer, the program support coordinators of Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis head out into the community to facilitate our Operation Smart program. Operation Smart is a one time, one hour program focused on science, technology, engineering, and math concepts. The goal of Operation Smart is to introduce girls to these subjects and get them excited about STEM, in hopes they may someday pursue a career in the field.

I spent my career prior to Girls Inc. in environmental education, and our curriculum this year focused on a topic near and dear to my heart, watershed health. A watershed is an area of land where water drains to a common point. Here in Indianapolis, we live in the Upper White River Watershed. All of the creeks and streams in the area eventually lead to the White River. The Upper White River Watershed covers 16 counties in central Indiana and is home to over 2 million people. The waterways in our watershed provide recreation opportunities, beautiful scenery, home for wildlife, and perhaps most importantly, much of our drinking water. Keeping our watershed healthy should be important to everyone because it affects all of us.

We traveled to summer camps, community centers, and Boys and Girls Clubs across the Greater Indianapolis area to facilitate Operation Smart. Girls learned what a watershed is, discussed how we use them, and participated in hands-on activities to drive home the importance of protecting our watersheds. In one activity, the girls each played a part in a story that showed how everyday actions like leaving litter behind, wasting electricity, and washing our cars can negatively affect watersheds. We started with a bucket of clean water meant to represent the White River, and saw how each action increased pollution. It was a great visual representation of human impact. The girls had fun while gaining a new understanding of how our actions affect the environment.

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The second activity gave the girls a chance to be the scientists who evaluate the health of a watershed. They were given three samples of water which we pretended were from three different creeks within the watershed. They conducted a pH test of each sample and determined if it would be safe for fish. During this activity, the girls gained a new understanding of the pH scale and the range in which fish can live, and practiced using real scientific testing instruments.

The program wrapped up with a discussion on how the girls, even as kids, can help protect watersheds. We were impressed with their ideas, which included cleaning up trash, educating friends and family on watershed health, reducing electricity consumption, being mindful of how we dispose of hazardous materials, and forming community service groups to clean up our watershed and educate the public.

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In all, we worked with 408 girls throughout the Greater Indy area over the course of 32 programs. It was a busy and exhausting summer outreach season, but we had a great time facilitating the programs. Seeing the girls make a connection on how our actions can positively or negatively impact watersheds was incredibly rewarding. We hope they’ll keep the lessons learned with them as they make choices in their lives. We also hope the chance to do hands-on environmental science may inspire some of them to consider pursuing a career in that field when they grow up!