Friday, September 28, 2012

“The Best Field Trip Ever”

Students and teachers on the Chehalis River sampling freshwater mussels
and recording data along the shore.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS
“This is the best field trip ever!” is what I heard just minutes after arriving to the Chehalis River, before the hunt for freshwater mussels kicked off. Mussel Academy, as this exciting Connecting People with Nature/citizen science program is officially referred to, brought five student groups from Grays Harbor and Thurston County, Washington area schools, both middle and high school. The premise was for class representatives to learn about freshwater mussels and take their new knowledge back to school as “field experts” for their classmates.  
One student uses an "aquascope" to help him search for mussels
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS

The Scientist in Us All
Citizen science is an idea that has been adopted by a number of conservation and scientific organizations that allows for citizens, just like you and me, to participate in and contribute to scientific research. On paper it sounds formal, but when taken into the field with a group of intelligent, curious and energetic 12-18 year olds, the idea ignites a passion for natural science that future generations can depend on.

Keeping Science Exciting
On this day, our citizen scientists helped to survey freshwater mussels in the Chehalis River, a biological hotspot for three types of Pacific Northwest freshwater mussels – Floaters, Western Pearlshells and Western Ridged. These freshwater mussels have become a growing interest to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service because they serve as a long term environmental indicator species, or in other words – when they start to go, it’s a sign that other aspects of that environment will follow.  

Kicking off the day, Teal Waterstrat gives an exciting presentation to
the visiting students about the importance of freshwater mussels in
their local river systems.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS
To start the day, Teal Waterstrat, Washington Fish & Wildlife Office Fisheries Technician, gave a presentation on freshwater mussels and their importance. With a natural knack for teaching, Teal had the students captivated within the first few seconds. A follow-up presentation offered the students some hands on-training to identify the different local freshwater mussel species, and randomly select plots in the river where they would be collecting, measuring and returning their finds. This classroom away from the classroom was not to be a boring one.

Two students carefully make their way down to our sampling site
on the Chehalis River.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS

“Today we are Scientists”
Next, a short, but slightly rugged trail took the group outdoors to our mussel survey site  “Can we skip stones?” one student asked while waiting for a pair of waders to keep himself dry across the 20 yard stretch of river water that would lead us to the survey site. “Today, we are scientists,” answered Kathy Jacobson, Chehalis Basin Project Coordinator and co-lead for the day’s trip. Skipping stones would have to be for after work. What I soon observed, however, is that skipping stones quickly became an afterthought; this didn’t seem much like work at all.

A team effort between students and teachers to collect baseline data
 will help future freshwater mussel research.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS

From Student, to Teacher
There wasn’t an absent smile on the river as students one-by-one splashed their arms down into the water, triumphantly pulling out palm-sized mussels for sampling. I watched as they marched piles of mussels retrieved from their plots back and forth to their classmates who were busy measuring and recording data on the shore. After a couple hours of searching and recording, counts of about 400 total freshwater mussels coincided with the days end. Students, sad to leave the river, carefully returned the mussels to their plots, ready to take what they learned back to their schools where they would then become the teachers. This day, acting as scientists on the Chehalis River gave students the opportunity to have fun in nature, but also helped create baseline data for future freshwater mussel monitoring. Best field trip ever? I’d sure say so.

No comments:

Post a Comment