Story and photos by Eric Newman

Nearly 1,700 fourth graders from Gilbert Public Schools came to Gilbert Civic Center grounds on March 7 and 8 to splash, pour and learn all about one of Arizona’s most important resources at the Gilbert Water Festival.

In its 7th year, the festival was designed by Arizona Project WET, a unit of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.

Groups of students visited various tents for water conservation-themed lessons that aligned with the content they are learning in school.

The four interactive stations were focused on water conservation, watershed, groundwater and the water cycle, all of which, Gilbert water conservation specialist Annikki Chamberlain said, are extremely important lessons to learn at a young age.

“Living in Arizona, already in an arid climate, our water resources come from a long way away, and these kids are going to be the future residents of Arizona, so it’s really trying to ingrain that conservation culture as they grow up,” she said.

Volunteers guided the students through water relay races, bracelet-making stations and model mountains to understand the principles of erosion, among other topics. Each was focused toward helping the students become conscious about water conservation.

Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels said the festival, along with the classroom lessons, was foundational knowledge that may lead to further interest in science and technology, fields in which water is paramount.

“They can actually see the way water works, and the volunteers are so passionate about the subject, so you can see how interested it makes the kids, in turn; it makes a big difference in the learning and absorption of material,” she said.

Many of the volunteers were experts working in earth science and water conservation, and could effectively teach the students important lessons they could not learn from just a textbook.

GPS Superintendent Shane McCord said he hopes the festival’s style of interactive learning is just the start of a trend that sees more hands-on lessons, especially for younger students who are eager to get out of the classroom whenever possible.

“Water conservation in our state is always something we’re concerned about. And having our students come out here, with a curriculum that aligns with the Arizona state standards and have a set of lessons that are hands-on and actually talk to individuals who have experience in that field,” he said, “it’s about the best type of education our students can get.”

And, from all accounts, the teachers appreciate the lessons too, as the children return to the classroom reinvigorated and eager to continue the learning.

“I think the teachers have a limited time and a lot of stuff that the kids need to learn,” Chamberlain said. “By doing it hands-on, during a short, but intense field trip, it maximizes the limited time with the kids. And, since it’s fun, the kids will remember it too.”

If the hundreds of fourth graders walk away with just one lesson, it should be an understanding of just how fortunate they are to have readily-available water, despite such a dry climate, and how much effort it takes to make that possible, said volunteer Kara Holyoak.

“Some places in the world, there are people that are walking miles and miles to get water that we here might not even touch,” she added. “We’re really lucky, but there’s so much work that goes into that. We don’t just have it; we have it because people are working at it all the time.”