This is a community surrounded by science, where residents here joke about whalesong waking them up on their boats in the middle of the night and huge old-growth forests are just steps away.
And teachers at Tenakee School hope that a new way of learning science will better connect their students to what amounts to a giant outdoor laboratory surrounding their school.
As seventh-grader Quin Kiel keeps track of the time, classmate Reun Morrison-Morrow, reaches into the rushing water with long gloves.
“I’m rubbing the rocks, to get the bugs off,” she says. “We’re going to look at them.”
We’re standing in the Indian River near Tenakee Springs. The students – nine of them, from the Tenakee School, are participating in a stream team field exercise. The bugs from the rocks will drift into a net that another student holds just downstream. Morrison-Morrow has to agitate the rocks for three minutes, which is a very long time when you’re stooped over in the middle of a river.
“How much longer Quinn?!” she shouts, as her classmates watch from the river bank. They count down together the last few seconds, and then the net comes out of the water. After gathering bugs from a few different places, the students move up the bank to a nearby shelter. The net is emptied into metal trays and the students use pipettes to look for bugs in the debris.
Today’s lesson in the woods is a bit more complicated than just looking at bugs. The students have been taught about the different types of stream bugs – or benthic macroinvertebrates, if you want to get all scientific about it – and more importantly, they’re learning how the abundance and diversity of stream bugs – the amount and the different kinds – can indicate whether the stream is healthy.
And the health of the stream is important for salmon, which are also important.
“Most of us eat salmon,” says Scott Harris, restoration and special projects coordinator with the Sitka Conservation Society. “Salmon is a big part of the economy. I think one out of every 10 jobs in Southeast is directly related to salmon. So salmon’s a pretty big deal here.”
SCS and the U.S. Forest Service are sponsoring this trip, hoping to help schools across Southeast Alaska better teach their students about the importance of salmon, and their habitats.
“You know, as kids are hearing this radio interview, if they are, they’re probably rolling their eyes going, ‘Oh my God, more salmon,’ because they get a lot of salmon in their curriculum,” he said. “But the difference with this is that it takes what they’re already learning – basic principles of ecology – linking it to something they’re familiar with in their everyday lives and their communities, and then taking it to the field.”
The curriculum has been in use in Sitka for about five years. A group of teachers worked with the conservation society and expanded the curriculum into lessons for all grade levels, dealing a variety of science lessons that meet state standards and expectations. But the stream team activity, sort of the basis for it all, was developed by Blatchley Middle School science teacher Brenda Papoi and Robert Miller, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.
Back at the river, another group of students is measuring the dissolved oxygen in the water. Not far away is Ken Marrill, an instructional aide at the school, who teaches science in the afternoons. He says there’s a lot of science around the students every day.
“Everything is right here,” Marrill said. “Tenakee Inlet is a very productive inlet for everything Southeast has.”
But he also says the stream team lesson, and the related curriculum, will help him better engage his students.
“They just have more interest,” he said. “In the classroom they would have been bored after 20 minutes. We’re going on three hours now and they’re still excited.”
And frankly, so is he. Marrill is side-by-side with his students as they go looking for bugs. He helps the younger ones search, and talks to the older ones about what they’re finding. And he’s watching as the students start to understand the different kinds of bugs, and why they’re important. He says it’s rewarding as an instructor to see that moment when students start to catch on.
“Oh yeah, you can see it,” he said. “Every once in a while, I’ll bring up a subject, trying to get it across. You can tell when the lightbulb clicks.”
Harris, with the Conservation Society, says there are scientific ways to know if the curriculum is working, too. They’ve done before-and-after tests. But also, the students put together presentations at the end of the school year. Harris says students show strong retention of the material, owing in part to their hands-on experience.
To date, the Conservation Society and the Forest Service have trained 21 teachers, who have shared the lessons with approximately 650 students across Southeast Alaska. The curriculum has been to Hoonah, Kake, Angoon, Tenakee, and Ketchikan, and they’re hoping to go to the communities on Prince of Wales Island next year.
Harris says the lessons can be used outside the region, too, and that he hopes to share it with teachers statewide.
“It doesn’t even have to be salmon,” he said. “Really, it’s a lot about water quality and healthy habitat for fish.”
Back in Tenakee Springs, we’re hiking to town. Along the way, Morrison-Morrow, the rock agitator from the beginning of the day, says she enjoyed the day, and learned a lot.
“Without the bugs there wouldn’t be any fish,” she says. “Without the fish, there wouldn’t be any food.”
And now she knows about dissolved oxygen and thinks that maybe science would be fun as a job.
“Except I’m not really good with cold and rain,” she says.
So, maybe counting bugs in the tropics?
“Yeah. Then it would be OK.”
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