Launched under the auspices of the Georgetown Learning Initiative (GLI), Curriculum Enrichment Grants (CEGs) support class-related activities that strengthen the intellectual climate around introductory level undergraduate courses. They help faculty and students gain access to the larger DC/MD/VA community, bringing the curricular and co-curricular together to give students in introductory classes a richer sense of the broader implications and applications of work in a particular discipline.
This fall, Sarah Stewart Johnson (SFS-STIA) collaborated with Mark Giordano (SFS-STIA) to take students in three of their courses to the Anacostia River for a boat trip with the Anacostia Watershed Society to study the the health of the river. Students from Johnson’s Environmental Geoscience course and Giordano’s freshman Water Proseminar and his senior seminar, Water Futures, took part. The trip, funded through a CEG, enabled the professors to bring students off-campus to see firsthand issues with water in the DC area and engage with the topic of environmental racism. The following is a reflection from one of Johnson’s students, Isabella Todaro, on her experience traveling to Anacostia for this grant-supported activity. If you’re interested in learning more about CEGs or want to apply for a grant for the spring semester, please visit our website
Reflection on Anacostia Boat Trip
By Isabella Todaro, an STIA Energy and Environment major (SFS 2017)
Standing huddled at the front gates, we waited for the vans to take us across town to the Anacostia River for a boat trip. We had so many reasons to be excited as we sipped our coffees, waiting for the caffeine to shake off our morning grogginess. This was the boat trip! We’d been hearing about it since syllabus day and had been told that it was a highlight of the course. We had performed a water quality analysis of the Potomac, and only after we took samples from the Anacostia on our trip could we compare the results. But most of all, we’d been excited to get away from Lau for a day to exchange the browns and grays of our favorite Brutalist study spot for a little adventure and some fresh air.
We boarded the vans (driven by generous student volunteers) and set out toward Maryland. The van ride was a nice tour of DC, and we passed the time scoping restaurants, markets, cool parks, and new neighborhoods through the window and saving them as starred locations in Google Maps, contributing to our ever-growing senior year bucket list. When we finally arrived, we were in a part of town that few of us frequent, but I’m sure many of us will visit again.
The dock was situated in a beautiful park, with a playground and rolling grassy hills. We met up with Sarah Johnson (SFS-STIA), who had brought her family, and waited for the earlier boat to return, the promise of donuts onboard fueling our anxiety. Johnson’s two children, who were so sweet and well behaved—plus, maybe smarter than any of us (they knew the definition of turbidity)—kept big smiles on all of our faces and reminded us of the excitement of a day on the water.
When the boat docked, we met our captain, a gruff man named Jim with a soft spot for river conservation. Jim helped us board (and passed out the promised donuts), and we were off. It was a pontoon boat that meandered slowly down the peaceful river, so we were able to make careful observations and listen closely to all of the wisdom that Jim was sharing with us. The sun filtered through perfectly just-changed leaves, and there was a briskness to the air that was unmistakably fall.
Jim told us about environmental regulations, battles with local government and industry, successes, failures, and his dreams for the river. He had made the health of this river—and his dream of seeing it one day be swimmable and fishable—his life’s work. His passion and personal stake in the future of the Anacostia was impressionable, and when he talked about the river, although he was talking about local government zoning laws and EPA regulations, we were entranced.
Jim had lived on the river his whole life and knows it to be a source of lifeblood for the people that live on its banks and downstream. He knows the impact that the health of the river has on each of their lives, and he personally mourns every piece of trash along the river banks, every wetland lost. But he is also optimistic. The bike path for which he has been advocating for 20 years was slated to open the day after our visit. He proudly told us that the water quality had been slowly improving, and he expected to see this rate of improvement increase even more.
We stopped mid-trip to take our samples, measuring turbidity, pH, dissolved oxygen levels, bacteria levels, and temperature. We are waiting to get the results of all of these tests, but soon we will be able to compare the water quality of the Potomac and the Anacostia. Sadly, we can expect the Anacostia samples to be far dirtier, a river that runs through a poorer part of the city and epitomizes the struggle of environmental injustice and racism.
The trip back was more reflective. We all spoke less, watching the beauty of the river pass us by, noticing the sins of pollution that Jim had talked about. When we arrived back at the vans, we were full with new insights, but mostly with new questions about the future of the river, about environmental responsibility, and about our part in all of this.