CHAPEL HILL -- Smith Middle School science teacher Melinda Fitzgerald has the word "rakes" written in magic marker on the back of her hand. It reminds her that years of environmental research with 16 different classes of eighth-graders is meaningless if you forget to bring the right gardening tool -- or if your maps are off by a few feet.Fitzgerald, colleague Kelly Sears and their eighth-grade band of student volunteers known as the "Sediment Rangers" wanted to improve the environment in their school's own back yard. Or at least they thought it was their backyard.With $6,000 in grants from Lowe's and North Carolina Beautiful, they hoped to halt erosion and sediment flow from a steep hill into Bolin Creek, by inserting water bars or "speed bumps" at various places on the hill. They also planned an outdoor classroom in a forested area within view of Chapel Hill High and the proposed Carolina North project.Every season since Smith was built six years ago, the two teachers' classes have studied the water quality of the creek that runs behind the school's playing field."We try to get them to think of themselves as scientists," said Fitzgerald, 33. "We teach them how to take the data in every season, and then we teach them how to study it for trends and patterns."It was an eighth-grader who suggested that "you can't be a real scientist until you've learned to apply for grants." So the teachers put their classes to work learning the process of writing grant proposals. To date, the middle-schoolers have won three Bright Idea grants from Piedmont Electric Membership Cooperative along with those from Lowe's and N.C. Beautiful.According to my 14-year-old daughter Sally, who is in Fitzgerald's class this year, the water quality work comes with its own vocabulary lesson, what the teachers refer to as "nerd words.""We're looking for macroinvertebrates, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, phosphates, sediment, flow rates, and depth and turbidity of the water," Fitzgerald said. Fitzgerald, who won a National Disney Teaching Award in 2006, joined UNC marine scientists that summer in studying the coral reef off the Florida coast. Sears, 41, has done similar research, tracking sediment movement off the New Zealand continental shelf. Both teachers have brought their research methodology back to the classroom.Gail Hughes, a soil conservationist with Orange County Soil and Water, started working with the teachers more than a year ago, looking at how they could fight erosion in both their planned outdoor classroom and the adjoining hill."These teachers deserve an extra pat on the back for the extra work they have put in," Hughes said.But even well-meaning junior scientists run into bureaucratic glitches. When they realized that they'd need some earth moving equipment, they approached UNC, the owners of the neighboring property, to discuss collaboration.That's when everyone involved discovered the county maps were wrong.The school's steep hill at the heart of the erosion problem -- and the students' grant proposal -- is actually owned by UNC.And despite the project's modest goals, Greg Kopsch, the forest manager for Carolina North, told the Smith teachers the help the students were seeking would require "significant commitment" from the university in terms of material, equipment and labor."Internal discussions continue," Kopsch wrote. "Until such time as we can achieve consensus on how to cooperate on projects of mutual benefit like this, we will not be able to proceed with the project we've discussed."The group was also stymied in its attempts to talk with Sharon Myers, UNC environmental specialist and the licensed geologist who made the decision not to proceed with the project.Smith students never heard the reasoning behind UNC's unwillingness to collaborate with them.Myers acknowledged she'd never spoken to the teachers directly until she wanted to discuss some soil run-off that occurred on UNC land when the dirt for the Smith project was delivered just before a heavy rainstorm."I felt that the elevations across the road weren't right for the trenching they wanted to do," said Myers. She acknowledged that communication could have been better on the part of UNC."The outdoor classroom is amazing," said Fitzgerald. (Indeed, the setting is reminiscent of a mini-Stonehenge -- that is, if you could sit on the rocks at Stonehenge.)"But as we finished it, I noticed one ninth-grade student who'd been very involved in the grant writing process last year glance in the direction of the hill owned by UNC, as if he felt we hadn't really finished what we set out to do," she said. "It's a bittersweet conclusion."