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Since 2013, thousands of students have shuttled through a unique program intended to create a new generation of stewards for the Petaluma River watershed and teach them about its different facets — its plants, animals and how to protect it.

The program, called Watershed Classroom, is sponsored by the nonprofit Friends of the Petaluma River. Since its inception, $38,500 in stipends have been given out to Petaluma teachers interested in having their students learn more about the ecology of the Petaluma River watershed, while also having the opportunity to do hands-on, experiential learning. This year, teachers received more than $11,000.

On Thursday night, 12 project groups from area elementary, junior and high schools came together at the Santa Rosa Junior College campus in Petaluma to show what they’d done.

Presenting River Montessori Charter School’s “We All Live in the Watershed” project were fourth-graders Jocelyn Edwards and Sara Christmann Rigsby, both 10. Over the course of the school year, River Montessori third- and fourth-graders learned about the watershed surrounding their school. Highlights included a trip to the Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility and raising and releasing steelhead in a ceremony at Doyle Park in Santa Rosa, the girls said.

“It was really cool to see everything, and see how they clean the water,” Christmann Rigsby said of their trip to the water treatment facility.

After the visit, the class went to the river and tested the water, where Edwards learned, “The river isn’t exactly how it should be, but it’s pretty healthy.”

They followed up by learning how to improve the river’s standing.

“Don’t pollute, obviously,” Christmann Rigsby said.

“And don’t wash your car in the driveway,” Edwards said.

The project presented by Casa Grande juniors Kiley Cramer, 17, Camille Lee, 17, and Vanessa Giorgi, 16, was a bit more complicated. Their class judged the health of three Petaluma creeks based on water samples tested for temperature, pH, nitrates and cloudiness, among other indicators. The review also took into account what types of bugs live near the creeks, sorting them by their pollution tolerance levels.

In the end, students decided that Washington Creek was the least healthy of the three, with Lynch Creek coming in second, and Adobe Creek in the best shape.

“Going into it, none of us really knew what a watershed was, what anything was, and then for the last few weeks we were actually having to do hands-on work about it,” Giorgi said. “It kind of forced you into learning rather than sitting there and being lectured.”

The three teens are students in Todd Adams’ 25-person AP environmental science class, which has participated in the Watershed Classroom program for two years now.

“It gets the kids connected to what’s in their backyard,” Adams said. “It’s a really great lead-in to doing project-based learning and doing real science.”

In all, 14 schools participated in the Watershed Classroom program this year, which reached 1,300 students.

“One of the goals of our organization is to keep educating and inspiring stewardship around the watershed,” said Stephanie Bastianon, executive director of Friends of the Petaluma River. “We saw this as a way to get those teachers who are on the front lines to incorporate the watershed and be the people who can educate students.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com.