An outdoor laboratory

JMS students are testing elements of area watershed

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When Mona Davies heard a student question disbelievingly that there would be enough to do during three days of outdoor school, a lightbulb went off.

“I was surprised, and the statement made me realize how much time kids were spending inside, or in the car, than outside,” she said. “I try to promote the outdoors as much as possible.”

The Jemtegaard Middle School sixth-grade science teacher decided that more outdoor study time was needed than three days at the end of the school year.

“I enjoy the outdoors and spend as much time outside as possible, and in the past few years have realized how important being outside is to our health.”

Davies decided to utilize nearby Gibbons Creek, so that the students could conduct a year-long study observing the changes in the landscape over time due to weathering, erosion and decomposition.

“We are lucky to have Gibbons Creek on our campus,” she said. “We use the area to make observations and inferences…It has given students the opportunity to determine the health of the watershed.”

Five to seven students will present their findings at the annual Clark County Watershed Conference on Friday, May 20.

Watershed Congress is the culmination of the Watershed Monitoring Network, sponsored by the City of Vancouver and the Clark County Environmental Services Clean Water Program.

Each year, the network supports more than 3,000 students from 25 Clark County schools, who monitor neighborhood streams, rivers, wetlands and bioswales.

The JMS students are monitoring the watershed for phosphates, nitrates, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature and macro invertebrates.

“The biggest benefit is for students to realize change can occur over time, and humans can impact the change, as well as natural weather events,” Davies said. “The impact humans and nature have on the environment is important for kids to realize, because they can control human impact (to a degree). We will talk about weather in more detail, and climate change, over the next month.”

At Watershed Congress, students present their water monitoring findings, and engage in problem-solving sessions with other students and interested educators, community members and professionals.

The focus is on education, discovery and stewardship, and involves students ranging from kindergartners to 12th-graders.

In addition to the Watershed Congress event, students will travel to Bonneville Dam and compare data there to what they have collected at Gibbons Creek.

On a recent Tuesday, students braved mud and steady rain to collect data and make observations. After being given reminders such as, “no pushing into the creek,” “be careful not to slide in the mud,” and “listen to each other,” they split off into small groups to begin their work. Excited chatter could be heard occasionally, but for the most part, students took their research duties very seriously.

Adamaris Castro-Coca, Lauren Rabus and Jonah Powell measured the water temperature.

“It’s nice to get to do something instead of just sitting inside all day,” said Castro-Coca.

Added Rabus, “I enjoy doing the different tests, and having a local creek nearby. It’s been very interesting to see how it changes over the year.”

Powell was surprised to discover how clean the water is at the creek.

“You can’t drink it, but it’s clean enough to swim in,” he said. “That was an interesting fact to learn.”

Danielle Melton and her group tested nitrate levels.

“Getting to be out in nature is great,” she said. “We have learned by testing turbidity that the water is lighter the lower it is.”

Davies noted that the emphasis on technology in education doesn’t replace the great outdoors.

“I feel it is important to get kids outside and interacting with nature,” she said. I enjoy the challenge of getting kids who ‘don’t like science’ to realize science is a part of everything.”

She continued, “Student learning thrives when we are outside. Some even become better students when we are outside. Participation improves, questions are asked, observations and inferences are made. Learning improves when students can make personal connections, and there are not many who do not like to be outside.”