One of the first things the students learned in their project to clean and monitor a stream behind Westminster East Middle School was that the stream had no name.
And their final accomplishment in the project has been to get the federal government to approve an official moniker for the small tributary of the West Branch of the Patapsco River.
Two years have passed since the students undertook their project as part of the gifted and talented program in the seventh grade. They went on to the eighth grade, and then the ninth grade, most of them at Westminster High School. Their teacher was promoted to assistant principal at North Carroll Middle School.
The students had long forgotten about their submission to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. But Wednesday, each got a letter in their first-period classes from their former teacher, Don Bell, telling them that the long government-naming process was complete.
On Oct. 13, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names approved the students' submission -- Longwell Run, named for Westminster founding father Col. James Longwell.
"I got the letter, and I thought, 'What stream?' " said Bridget Marchio, one of the students.
"I didn't think it was going to be named at first," said classmate Jessie O'Kane. "It was a little stream."
"I think it should have been called Class of '98 Creek," said Carrie Kreider, one of the students. "But I don't think it would have been accepted."
On Nov. 26, the students joined Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown at City Hall to recognize the stream's new name.
Although the naming has become the most permanent result of their project, it was not the original goal, Mr. Bell said.
"We wanted students to become creative problem-solvers," he said. "We wanted them to find some problem to work on that was local and of high interest to them."
Selecting a problem taught the students consensus-building. Not all of them wanted to take on the stream as a project; for example. Jonathan Horneff wanted to do something more with computers, and he said Thursday he still would have preferred that.
But most students decided on the stream. Mr. Bell had suggested it. He had volunteered with Maryland Save Our Streams, a nonprofit organization.
For six weeks in fall 1992, the students donned boots and trudged down a hill to the stream. They tested the water temperature, looked for insects whose presence would help signal how healthy the stream was, entered data into a computer.
When a question would arise, for example, about the name of the stream, Mr. Bell would prompt the students to find the answer on their own the way any adult would.
"We met in an office and we had a phone in the room," Mr. Bell said. "They'd say, 'How can we find this out?' And I'd say, 'There's the phone, let's go ahead and call.' Their jaws would hit the floor."
The students had never felt so empowered before, they said last week. The work they were doing was real, for a specific purpose.
Instead of reading just for a grade, they read local historical documents to research the stream and come up with the name. They submitted reasons why the federal government should approve Longwell Run, backing it up with Colonel Longwell's connection to the immediate area of the stream.
Instead of doing isolated lab experiments from a book, they conducted tests to determine the health of the stream through temperature, dissolved oxygen and acid and alkaline levels.
"It felt like we were older because we got to talk to people who were older, like in the government. We sent away for maps," said Carrie Kreider.
"We found out our stream is actually a tributary" that flows to the Chesapeake Bay, said Jessie. "It felt pretty important."
Several of the students said the rewards of cleaning the stream, naming it and being recognized by the mayor will make them more likely to initiate community projects.
What was most important for Erik Fisher was "the experience that kids can make a difference," he said. "I don't think the adults would have taken the time to care about this little stream."
Over the winter, the students continued to do some work on their own when Mr. Bell, who rotated among schools, had to leave them for several weeks.
On a cold Saturday in January, the students and Mr. Bell organized a cleanup around the stream and ended up with a large pile of furniture, tires, diapers, cans, bottles, paper, plastic and other debris.
Several students said they visit the stream from time to time to clean up the banks or just to sit.
"It's such a peaceful place," Bridget said. "It's so beautiful."