Most weekday mornings, Phil Ruane would be in a computer class at South River High School in Edgewater, listening to his teacher and, as he puts it, "praying for the day to end."
But yesterday, Ruane and two classmates found themselves next to the acting chief of the Environmental Protection Agency on a federal research boat in the Rhode River, testing the water for cleanliness as part of a ground-breaking international effort.
"I feel like I'm learning a lot," said Ruane, 18, a senior. "I'm learning how you monitor water quality and how you test what you collect."
Ruane was in a group of students and government officials who went to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater as part of the first World Water Monitoring Day.
Organized by America's Clean Water Foundation, the event is designed to produce an overview of the world's water quality once each year by collecting samples from waterways, testing them and posting the results on a Web site.
Before the event, the Washington-based environmental group sent thousands of test kits to schools and community groups in the United States and 15 other countries.
Marianne Horinko, the EPA's acting administrator who accompanied the group, said the results would not be reliable enough for scientific studies. But once samples have been collected for a few years, she said, they will show whether water quality is generally improving in areas where the samples are collected.
"It'll help us to have the most robust information possible about water quality," she said.
High school and middle school students were at the environmental center as part of a program that gives them school credit for aquatic research.
A group of middle school pupils from Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties were there under a similar program and took to canoes yesterday to collect samples.
Shelby Cruise, an eighth-grader at Central Middle School in Edgewater, was one of several youngsters who put their hands in the water to survey a catch taken in dockside traps -- the haul included crabs and finger-size fish.
"Cool, he's no bigger than my thumb," she said, as she fingered a mud crab.
Organizers said the water testing project yesterday was the largest water sampling effort in history, comparable to the Christmas bird counts conducted each year by the National Audubon Society.
"It's a snapshot, it's a one-day look at what's going on with water quality all over the world," said Roberta Savage, president of the foundation.
The sampling kits included test tubes, tablets and instructions for assessing salinity, turbidity and dissolved oxygen. Volunteers also may use their own equipment and submit the test results to the group's Web site.
Last year, about 75,000 water samples were conducted in the first nationwide tests, Savage said. Savage said she hopes volunteers will submit "hundreds of thousands" of test results from this year's international effort.
"We're calling upon the citizens of the world to be our eyes and ears," she said.
Water quality has become a politically charged issue in the Bush administration. Environmentalists have accused Bush of rolling back key provisions of the 31-year-old Clean Water Act. The Sierra Club estimates that changes announced in January will eliminate federal protection for 20 million acres of wetlands in the nation.
But Horinko said yesterday that the criticism is unfounded.
"If you look beyond the rhetoric, which is very shrill, and examine the results and the evidence, you can see all that we've accomplished," she said.
Horinko was named acting administrator in July after Christine Todd Whitman resigned. Bush's nominee to succeed Whitman, Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, is going through the Senate confirmation process.
On the Rhode River yesterday, Ruane and classmates Paul Hearding, 17, and Tyler Magowitz, 16, received lessons in water collection techniques from Steven D. Giordano, a scientist with EPA's office of oceans, wetlands and watersheds.
They were joined by Horinko on board the 41-foot Bay Commitment, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Research vessel.
Giordano told the students that the best way to keep track of a waterway's health is to take several water samples from several points.
He used a fishing net, a fishing line and bucket, and a tube-shaped water collection device known as a hydrolab to test the river's salinity, turbidity, its dissolved oxygen levels and the content of its aquatic life.
The nets brought in a blue crab, some finger-size perch and striped bass and a number of jellyfish. The striped bass, Giordano said, was a good sign.
Different species of fish live in different places, depending on their stage of development, Giordano said. Striped bass, for instance, move from shallow waters to deeper areas of the bay while young and migrate to the ocean as they mature.
"What you're looking for is species diversity, the number of fish, and you want to document their size and where we've found them," Giordano said.