River Explorer program reaches 35,000 students

“This is awesome!,” a sixth-grade boy exclaims as he crosses Banklick Creek in Covington’s Pioneer Park. “Come on, guys!” his classmate yells to friends who are dragging behind.

Later, peering at a tiny living creature she’s collected in a bin of water and identified as a mayfly larva, a young girl marvels, “it’s going to fly?”

All three of these excited students are participants in the Ohio River Foundation’s (ORF’s) River Explorer program. The inquiry-based field trips let students be junior scientists for the day as they learn about the ecology and importance of the Ohio River and its watershed through hands-on activities at area creeks, streams and rivers. It also gives them a chance to have outdoor experiences that can be hard to come by for today’s busy, screen-loving kids.

Open to grades four through 12, River Explorer includes three stations that relate learning to schools’ Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) content. All grades take part in a fish study, examining and identifying fish they’ve helped catch while learning about adaptations. All grades also collect and identify macroinvertebrates, such as the mayfly larva that surprised a recent student. ORF educators customize the third station based on grade level, with grades six through 12 learning about river chemistry while grades four and five learn about water use and the water cycle. All but the youngest students also take part in habitat assessments as part of their day, and ORF educators touch on environmental stewardship with all students.

Teachers and students rave about the River Explorer program, with many dubbing it their favorite field trip of the year. Rich Cogen, ORF’s executive director, attributes the program’s popularity to it being outdoors, fun and hands-on – and to the fact that kids receive direction but also get to think for themselves.

“You’re giving the kids freedom to learn and have fun and be responsible young adults in an outdoor learning environment,” he said.

But it’s not just about having fun: The trips get results. Students who participate increase their watershed knowledge by 30 to 40 percent (based on before and after quiz results).

In 2017, nearly 4,200 students at more than 50 schools in Greater Cincinnati and approximately 700 students at 11 Columbus-area schools took part in the program. Since the program was founded in 2005, more than 35,000 students have participated.

The River Explorer program runs throughout April and May and will be offered again in September and October. Greater Cincinnati field trips take place at Nisbit Park and Lake Isabella Park in Loveland; Sycamore Park in Batavia; Sharon Woods Park in Sharonville; Pioneer Park in Covington; and Guilford Covered Bridge Park in Guildford, Indiana. Columbus programs are at Highbanks Park and Friendship Park.

River Explorer is just one of ORF’s education programs.

The nonprofit also offers Mussels in the Classroom (MIC), which lets students learn about an important bio-indicator species by caring for freshwater mussels at their own schools. The first program of its kind in the country, MIC is available to schools in Greater Cincinnati, Columbus, Lexington and Frankfort.

Registration for River Explorer and MIC is available through Aug. 1.

For more information, visit the River Explorer and Mussels in the Classroom pages on ORF’s website.

Support for the River Explorer and MIC programs is provided by The Charles Dater Foundation, The Elsa Sule Foundation, The Sutphin Family Foundation, The Louise Taft Semple Foundation, Ashland, Inc, Duke Energy Foundation, and International Paper.

About Ohio River Foundation

Ohio River Foundation (ORF) is dedicated to protecting and improving the water quality and ecology of the Ohio River and all waters in its 11-state watershed. ORF works towards these goals through environmental education and conservation activities that serve to inspire environmental stewardship for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future citizens. For more information, visit www.ohioriverfdn.org.