By Debbie Adams
If you are old enough, you will remember when virtually every high school class involved the
traditional lecture approach. That’s not what you will find in the classes taught by Rusty
Galbreath. He teaches Ecology (along with a couple of physics classes) at William Byrd High
School. He and his students were in the news recently for their “Storm Drain Stenciling Project.”
The students stenciled a “Dump No Waste, Drains to Creek” message on the high school’s
drainage inlets hoping to make other students and the general public aware of the importance of
protecting area waterways.
Most people mistakenly believe storm drainage systems carry stormwater to a treatment plant
prior to it being discharged into the nearest waterway. However, stormwater is not treated, and it
discharges directly into the area’s receiving waters. Often, stormwater is polluted with oil,
sediment, cigarette butts, grass, trash, lawn and leaf debris, pet waste, and more. Stenciling storm
drain inlets is an easy way to provide a visual reminder that stormwater goes, untreated, into
Roanoke County’s Stormwater Dept. is encouraging other groups to duplicate the project in their
areas of the county and will provide supplies necessary to carry out the project, so the hope is
that the William Byrd project will have a wide impact.
However, the stenciling project is not the only way Galbreath has involved his students in hands-
on projects that benefit the environment. He says it is only one of the outdoor projects they do. In
fact, they are frequently outside.
“Kids get bored if they sit all day,” Galbreath says. “We get out a lot and do a lot.”
Ecology is basically the study of how living things interact with each other and their
environment. To obtain a standard diploma in Virginia you are required to take three science classes in high school. An Advanced Studies Diploma requires four. Ecology is one of the
choices to meet the requirements at all Roanoke County high schools.
When you register for Ecology classes at Byrd, usually in 11 th or 12 th grade, you are signing up
not just for instruction in the basic principles of ecology, but for some hands-on learning fun
with the kind of teacher you always wished for.
Galbreath lists projects in forestry, stream and stormwater management, environmental studies,
and biomes as other favorites STEM activities for him and his students.
During the forestry unit, his classes go outside (William Byrd is located near the Wolf Creek
Greenway) and identify trees. In a partnership with the 4-H, they plant trees behind the school
near Wolf Creek and near the edge of the woods at the school entrance. He brings in foresters as
guest speakers. (He is always eager to share the story of the real Smokey Bear, born in New
The Ecology students also go to Wolf Creek and catch bugs as part of the Stream and Watershed
Unit. You can analyze the health of a stream by determining which creatures live there. Students
look for “benthic macro-invertebrates” (bottom dwellers), which are reliable indicators of the
biological condition of waterbodies. They spend all or most of their lives in water, are easy to
collect, and differ in their tolerance to pollution.
Galbreath says if the students catch leeches, that indicates a dirty creek if they are the majority of
the bugs seen—they are more tolerant of pollutants. Water pennies and mayflies indicate a
“clean creek.” Crawdads can go either way. Students do a head count of what they find– catch
and then release back into the stream.
Assistant Principal Phillip Martin thanked Galbreath for “an awesome lesson” he observed at
Wolf Creek one day.
“The students collected and analyzed data from the creek to check the health of the stream,”
Martin said. “I learned which organisms indicate healthy or polluted water. I also learned that I
can’t catch a crawfish and that Mr. Galbreath can identify every living organism on the planet.”
Students get to don hip waders and use hand-held nets, kick-nets, and shower curtains to
complete stream studies on Wolf Creek, comparing water quality.
Guest speakers also come from the Roanoke Valley Clean Valley Council, the Department of
Environmental Quality, and other environmental agencies. There are PowerPoints and classroom
simulations. Students create posters and complete art projects involving whatever they are
studying. They create 3D biomes from shoe boxes. They make homemade wind turbines and test
The top 20 students are able to attend the Earth Summit Conference at Virginia Western
Community College to participate in environmental activities on campus for a day.
WBHS Principal Tammy Newcomb says, “Mr. Galbreath goes above and beyond to immerse
students in real life environmental lessons. He often has the students examining the viability of
Wolf Creek and the surrounding woods around WBHS.”
A couple of years ago, William Byrd started a new tradition of recognizing teachers with a
“Terrier of the Week Spotlight.” Galbreath was in the first group selected by students and
received this commendation, “He always makes science engaging with his many fun and creative
lessons, as well as his unique characters, such as Backwoods Bob. Thank you, Mr. Galbreath, for
your hard work and creativity.”
Galbreath says he appreciates the administrators at William Byrd who give him support and a
wide latitude in projects.
He has been teaching for 34 years– 18 years at Glenvar High School and 17 years at WBHS. He
has also taught some classes at Hidden Valley and Cave Spring High Schools when needed. He
ran cross-country as a student at Virginia Tech in the 1980s, and coached at Glenvar, but gave
that up and became a house painter on the side when his four children reached college age. He is
also an enthusiastic sponsor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Club which meets each
week at Byrd.
His hope is that students in his Ecology classes will not just learn about the environment, but
more importantly about the impact of human activity on the environment, and how they
themselves are capable of making a positive impact on their community and the world.