Students, officers and volunteers paddle down Nashua River

NASHUA – Many of the life jacket-clad, paddle-wielding seventh-graders stepping into canoes on the Nashua River Wednesday morning had never been in a boat.

As students at Elm Street Middle School, several were out of their element in the woods, examining bugs and testing water quality, but judging by their smiles and excited chattering, most quickly became comfortable.

For the last several years, roughly 100 students at Elm Street have participated in the Nashua River Watershed Association’s River Classroom program, a “canoe-based, day-long adventure that teaches young people about our rivers, their history and ecology, and the capacity of humans to impact the health of our waterways, for better or worse,” according to the organization’s website.

“Here at Elm, we have a very diverse population, and so a lot of kids don’t get to be in nature that often,” science teacher Patty Davidson said.

In seventh grade, they learn about life sciences, she said, so it is a good way to take what they are learning in the classroom and apply it to real life to see science as more than just a school subject. Plus, Davidson added, the Nashua River is “their” river, so it is good for them to be able to experience it.

They paddled out to evaluate river details, such as pH, phosphate and nitrate levels – and to consider the effects of non-point source pollution in the river. As part of the River Classroom program, representatives from the watershed association enter classrooms throughout the year to teach children about the river and about the water cycle (for example, grossing them out with the fact that some of the water they drink could have once been dinosaur liquid waste) with hands-on lessons.

Getting 100 students into canoes during the course of two days requires a lot of help; specifically, one adult per two students. When Davidson was a little short on volunteers, she reached out to school resource officer Ross Desmet, who then got five other officers from the Nashua Police Department to volunteer for the trip.

Wednesday, officers Michael DeBisz and Julia Banks joined Desmet. Today, three others will take their place.

“It’s helping the students and officers communicate,” Desmet said. “It shows them we are just regular people. We wear regular clothes when we’re not at work. It helps us build those relationships.”

Hannah LaClaire can be reached at 594-1243 or