A river runs through lessons in Washington

Field trips to the Elwha River near the Pacific coast let students do real-world experiments
By: | Issue: June, 2015
May 22, 2015

Students in Port Angeles School District in Washington get a taste of the real world of science from their local river.

For the past 10 years, they have been working like true scientists collecting and analyzing data gathered from the Elwha River, which is in nearby Olympic National Park near the Pacific coast.

Between 2011 and August 2014, two dams were removed from the Elwha. “It is one thing for students to read in a book that the flow of the mouth of the river has changed, but we allow them to see that salmon are now able to swim upriver and inhabit where the dams used to be,” says Superintendent Marc Jackson.

The one-day, September and October field trips for Stevens Middle School eighth graders are run by NatureBridge, an environmental education non-profit. The research is identical to what “real park scientists” are doing, says Steven Streufert, Pacific Northwest director of NatureBridge.

Standards in real time

After the students collect data from one part of the Elwha, the teacher gives lessons about geology, how the river changes over time and other pertinent science topics, Then the class moves on to another section of the river. It gives teachers a chance to teach state standards in a hands-on way.

“Understanding ‘inputs and outputs,’ which means what a plant takes in and what it gives out, is a standard, and something my students were having trouble grasping in the classroom,” says Brenda Manson, a science teacher at Stevens. “On the river, they were engaged, so I used the plants as a demonstration, and they were finally able to understand.”

When the students return to the classroom, they use the data to create charts and graphs, and in small groups present their conclusions to the rest of the class. Manson weaves information about the Elwha into her daily curriculum, as well.

“Populations and ecosystems is a unit, and the Elwha is an ecosystem we study,” she says.

Excitement brings results

Thanks to the Elwha trip, students are excited about science and engaged, and their test scores are rising. Such excitement helps them remember potentially difficult concepts to grasp better, says Chuck Lisk, the principal at Stevens.

Students score 87 percent on the state science assessment, which is 25 percentage points above the state average.

Achievement has particularly increased in the IEP special ed population. Since the project began, performance has risen annually, says Lisk. Now, 81 percent of IEP students meet standard, while the state average is 30 percent.

Starting this spring, several first and second grade classes at Roosevelt Elementary School in Port Angeles also began visiting the Elwha River for experiments. Such classes focused on the best way to revegetate land vacated by the dam’s removal.

“My students collected soil samples from the riverbed, lake bed and where sediment had accumulated, and brought the soil back to the classroom to see which types of plants could grow in the different types of soil,” says teacher Lambert Grimes.

Grimes’s students will experiment with levels of light and water, make predictions on which plants will grow in which soil, record the coordinates of where each soil sample was obtained, record data and write conclusions.

Like the eighth graders, the small groups present their findings to the rest of the class after conclusions are reached and will pass along their results to Olympic National Park scientists, who will review the information alongside their own research.

Kylie Lacey is associate editor.