Schools are being encouraged to develop localised teaching units now that national standards have been abolished. Simon Collins reports in the second of a five-part series.
When Whitianga schoolgirl Nikita Russell started gathering data in the local estuary, she didn't know what she was going to find.
In her other subjects, there were known answers.
"We were in the classroom on our laptops where we were given maybe the scenario or data from a stream, maybe in America, and the teacher knew the answer and we just had to get to that answer," she says.
"Whereas with Mr Everth's course we found our own data and none of us knew what the answer was going to be."
Thomas Everth, who spent 30 years in information technology before teaching at Whitianga's Mercury Bay Area School, has created a two-year course in which Years 12 and 13 students study their own environment to achieve University Entrance in both Earth and Space Science and Statistics.
It's the kind of locally-based, cross-disciplinary project that has been officially encouraged in the NZ curriculum since 2007, and which looks set to expand with more use of projects in the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).
Nikita, 17, chose to investigate water quality in the tidal Moewai Stream which runs into the estuary that laps near the edge of the school's playing fields.
She used a floating data logger, built by Everth, which recorded the levels of salt, acidity and dissolved oxygen and the clarity and temperature of the water.
"The data monitor connects by Bluetooth to Mr Everth's phone, so we could have the data probe out in the stream and watch the data coming in," Nikita says.
She found that the water became less acidic as the amount of salt increased on the high tides because the salty water coming in with the tide had a lower acidity than the fresh water from the stream.
She plotted acidity against salt levels on a graph and used NZGrapher software to try various equations linking acidity and salt until she found the one that best matched the data.
She also found a lower level of dissolved oxygen at the point where Whitianga's treated sewage flows into the stream. In a 38-page report on her study, she notes that global warming is reducing dissolved oxygen, and raising acidity, in the world's oceans as the sea retains less oxygen and absorbs more carbon dioxide.
"I feel like I have learnt so much," she says.
"I have always been in the back of my mind a bit environmentally conscious of what's happening, like global warming.
"This took it to a whole new level, being able to see what's happening in our stream and environment. I think it really sparked my interest. Now I'm considering going to study this sort of thing at university."
Everth designed the two-year course to alternate between ocean systems in one year and atmospheric systems in the other year, so this year Nikita will learn more about global warming in the atmosphere.
"For this coming year I'm building an environment where they can grow plants in elevated carbon dioxide conditions," Everth says.
He is also starting a course for younger students in Years 7 to 9, possibly measuring plastic pollution in the sea.
On the western side of the Coromandel Peninsula, he says, "there is a massive amount of plastic which emanates from Auckland and the fishing in the Hauraki Gulf and the mussel farms".
"On the Whitianga side the plastic is a little better because we have a vast open space of ocean in front of us, but we still might find microplastics."