Stellar Year for Chicago River Schools Network Bodes Well for New School Year

Students conduct water quality tests of the Little Calumet River at Kickapoo Woods.

Back-to-school is upon us and our Chicago River Schools Network (CRSN) is gearing up for another successful academic year. By empowering local teachers with the knowledge and resources to teach Chicago-Calumet River ecology through workshops, presentations, and field trips, our total CRSN education outreach impacted more than 20,590 students over the course of the year.

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Since 2010, the CRSN has averaged over 65 field trips each year (not including pandemic years), inspiring thousands upon thousands of Chicago-area students to be environmental justice leaders, biologists, chemists, natural resource restoration workers, and river stewards. The 2022-2023 academic year for CRSN was a great success. Two hundred and ninety teachers participated in the program using Friends’ River Curriculum to teach their students about science, nature, and the river. Staff conducted 61 field trips to the river with over 2,500 students testing water quality, picking up litter, and looking for macroinvertebrates and visited 16 classrooms for presentations, educating over 450 students. Moreover, the coming 2023-2024 academic year is off to a fast start with eight field trips to the river already complete this month, with more to come. Friends’ Education Manager Mark Hauser said that this year he anticipates more opportunities for the CRSN to grow positive relationships between the Chicago-Calumet River system and the countless students and teachers surrounding it.

Since its founding in 1996, the CRSN has engaged more than 475,000 students and teachers in science, language, and history activities at river locations, north, south, and west. Designed to provide teachers with the tools they need to meet the state’s Next Generation Science Standards, the CRSN provides K-12 teachers with the training and personalized assistance they need to teach students ways to investigate real world issues and create service-learning projects that work to solve everyday problems facing the river and our communities.

“There are long-standing misconceptions about the Chicago-Calumet River system,” Hauser describes, “so it is no wonder that many students across Chicagoland feel disconnected from our rivers. We help dispel those myths and introduce the students into a new relationship with the river system—one that is data-driven and backed by science that the kids can participate in.” Core to the CRSN is Hauser’s popular field trips with students and teachers across the river system, from the North Shore Channel to Kickapoo Woods in the south suburbs along the Little Calumet River.

On Tuesday, Hauser led a water sampling field test with high school students participating in the Friends of the Forest Preserve Summer Program. The 30 participating students collected water samples from the Little Calumet River for testing. With their bucket of river water in tow, students assessed the water’s nitrate, phosphorous, pH, and turbidity levels in order to determine the river’s current health. At the start of his demonstration, Hauser asked the students to imagine giving the river a letter-grade based on their understanding of its health and safety. “An F!” a few students shouted, believing the river water to be unsafe for recreation of any kind. “No, I think a D,” another student chimed in, with a couple head nods in agreement. Fewer still suggested the river might have earned a “C.” “There was resounding agreement,” Hauser laughed, “the students thought the river was dirty.” However, after collecting the data, comparing it across groups, and analyzing the results, students were surprised to find that the river actually earned a good score, a “B.” While the river was still a bit high in phosphorous, suggesting that soap and fertilizer may be contaminating sections of the river, the overall quality boasted a safe environment for plenty of recreation—including swimming, direct skin-to-water contact.

Teaching opportunities such as these are what continues to inspire Hauser, who has dedicated over 16 years at Friends, working to educate young people about the importance of river ecologies and the ways in which biology, chemistry, and time spent in nature can play a big role in water advocacy. Hauser notes, “The story we tell, and the knowledge we have about the Chicago-Calumet River system, shapes the way we treat it.”

CRSN resources include lesson plans and activities centered on the Chicago-Calumet River system. Learn more about the Chicago-Calumet River system from Hauser by watching our “Chicago River Talks” series on our YouTube channel.  To arrange a field trip or in-classroom presentation, educators should contact Hauser at