The Joy of the Cal Water H2O Challenge
By Emily Akimoto
Brought to you by California Water Service and in conjunction with DoGoodery, the WestEd K-12 Alliance, and in partnership with CASE, the Cal Water H2O Challenge is a project-based, environmentally-focused classroom competition for grades 4-6. This NGSS-complementary, Common Core State Standards-aligned Challenge teaches students about caring for water through projects focused on finding solutions for local water problems. Learn more at https://challenge.calwater.com/.
Emily Akimoto, a past winner, current participant, and Teacher Ambassador of the Cal Water H2O Challenge, shares her experience with the classroom competition and how it has impacted both herself as an educator and her students as individuals.
Five years ago, I received a postcard in my box that described a challenge where students create a project about caring for water. The deadline to enter was that week. I took the card back to my fifth-grade class, showed my students, and they were immediately enthralled; we entered the Cal Water H2O Challenge that day. What followed was truly amazing.
My students came together as a team in a way that I had never seen before. They pushed themselves past limits they didn’t think were possible. I saw them sit and analyze texts that were way above their reading level, come in at lunch and after school to work, spend hours at home researching and writing. It was incredible. The sense of pride and accomplishment they had when they finished was worth everything. As we raised glasses of cider into the sky on the day we submitted, students shared inspirational thoughts. They talked about how much they watched each other grow, how proud they were of one another, and how, no matter the outcome, they knew they had made something truly extraordinary. It was everything I had ever hoped for as a teacher.
I thought the first year might have been a fluke, but year after year, I have watched the same magic unfold in my classroom with the Cal Water H2O Challenge. The Challenge has gained notoriety in my school. Every year, the first question asked as my new students settle into their class on the first day of school is, “Do we get to do the Cal Water Challenge?” Cheers erupt when I tell my students each year that it is time to start planning for their Challenge. Every year, the Challenge is listed as my students' favorite thing they did in class and what they are most proud of.
The best thing about the Cal Water H2O Challenge is watching the incredible growth in my students. Without fail each year, they push themselves and exceed what they think they can do. Last year, during their lunch recess, my students sat around and analyzed a college-level text about the water table in our county. They would read a paragraph and research what they had just read, chiming in with vocabulary, definitions, proposing summaries, and synthesizing meaning together. I have certainly never seen my students do that with a textbook! Two years ago, one of their peers who lost his home in the 2018 Camp Fire decided that he was ready to tell his story through the Challenge. My students clamored together at the last minute to create a video on the impact of the wildfire. Any other lesson could not have brought out their empathy. Last year, my students worked together to create a parody music video about water and climate change. They used advanced software, rewriting each word of the original song syllable by syllable. To say I am proud of my students would be an understatement.
Students collect water samples from the school drinking fountain to test for lead contamination for their project “Is Our School Water Safe?”
Students collaborate together in small groups while working on their Cal Water H2O project
A student works on the plant-based greywater filter the class built as part of their project, “What Does it Take to Filter Greywater?”
Students work together to stop a hillside from eroding in Paradise, CA after the Camp Fire as part of their Cal Water H2O Project, “Protecting Paradise.”
Every year, the kids work beyond what they think they can do. Every year, they talk about giving up. Whenever this happens, I remind them they can do it even when they don't believe it, and every year, they rally and give each other pep talks and offer help to their peers so they can finish the project. Kids who were quiet become leaders in the Challenge. Kids who didn’t have confidence found it. It is both the most challenging part and the biggest highlight of our school year.
This year, in addition to facilitating the Cal Water H2O Challenge in my classroom, I have joined the Teacher Ambassador Program as a Teacher Ambassador. The Teacher Ambassador Program consists of a dynamic group of H2O Challenge winners and past participants who support teachers taking on the Challenge. I love watching my students complete this challenge every year. Now I get to help other teachers facilitate the Challenge in their classrooms. I remember being so daunted by the project the first time that my class did the Cal Water H2O Challenge. As a Teacher Ambassador, I am so thrilled and honored to help other teachers feel less overwhelmed and more confident in trying project-based learning in their classrooms.
For years, I wanted to start project-based learning in my classroom because I knew it would be an incredible way for my students to both learn deeply about topics and actually retain the information, but I didn't know where to start. The Cal Water H2O Challenge gave me a jumping-off point and truly changed how I look at my classroom. Projects and authentic learning are now an integral part of my teaching, and I have the H2O Challenge to thank for that.
Emily Akimoto (far right) with her 2017 grand-prize winning class at Sierra View Elementary School in Chico, Calif.
About Emily Akimoto
Emily Akimoto is a 5th-grade teacher at Sierra View Elementary School in Chico, CA. Emily has been a teacher for nine years and is passionate about finding creative ways to promote critical thinking and higher-order skills in her classroom.
Are you interested in learning how you can integrate the Cal Water H2O Challenge into your curriculum? Email Emily Akimoto at firstname.lastname@example.org.