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A Maple Grove 3rd grader wears protective goggles while studying a water sample.

Patricia Harmon’s third grade students at Maple Grove Primary School take their newly-found roles as scientists very seriously. With protective goggles over their eyes, a group of students sit around a picnic table testing water samples and carefully recording their data along the way. Nearby, a different group of four students is over a plastic tub filled with water and a few aquatic plants and using pipettes and plastic spoons to look for critters. Suddenly, there’s a breakthrough as an excited voice proclaims “Ms. Harmon, I found a stonefly!”

The young scientists join the ranks of more than 3,000 Clark County students that make up the Student Watershed Monitoring Network (SWMN). Supported by Clark County’s Clean Water Division and the City of Vancouver’s Water Resources Education Center, the SWMN project trains teachers and students in kindergarten through high school to monitor water quality in local water habitats. 

“These students are learning standardized procedures used to collect and interpret data,” Rainy Rau, water educator from the Water Resources Education Center said in a news release. “The work they’re doing for this project aligns with level one science from the State of Washington’s Next Generation Science Standards. If problems with a body of water are discovered during the course of student data collection, qualified professionals are alerted for follow-up response to the issues. So the students have a real impact.”

To collect their data, Maple Grove students walk a few hundred feed from their classroom to a pond just northeast of the campus where they are greeted by Maria Tunno, a part-time watershed educator for the SWMN and Chad Schwatka, the stormwater program coordinator with the City of Battle Ground. 

Tunno and Schwatka are at the pond to help introduce the class to the local watershed and train them to take in-the-field water measurements. Some of the tests include sampling the stream flow, water temperature, pH balance, dissolved oxygen and turbidity. Turbidity is the degree in which water loses its transparency due to sediment in the water. 

Along with this, students learn to collect and evaluate species of macroinvertebrates present in the water. Macroinvertebrates are organisms that lack a spine, but are large enough to be seen by the naked eye. Because different types of macroinvertebrates tolerate different stream conditions and levels of pollution, their presence or absence is used to indicate clean or polluted water. 

An example given in the news release states how most larvae of caddisflies, mayflies and stoneflies cannot survive in polluted water, so streams with these bugs are assumed to have good water quality. However, the absence of these organisms in a body of water does not necessarily indicate that the water quality is poor. Other natural factors, such as temperature and flow, also come into play.

“It has been a pleasure working with Maple Grove and River HomeLink students on this project for the last five years, and we hope that through multiple years of sampling, students can begin to think about how their everyday activities influence the quality of surface waters within their environments,” Schwatka said in the release. “It’s a joy to see students in the outdoors while they’re learning, and we are pleased that we have the opportunity to expose kids to their local watersheds. The program is also great for the City of Battle Ground, as it helps fulfill state requirements. But more importantly, it provides opportunities for us to directly educate and connect with the community we serve.”

In the past, students from Battle Ground Public Schools have collected water quality data from Woodin Creek and its tributary waters. Woodin Creek is one of the larger creeks that run through the City of Battle Ground, joining downstream with Salmon Creek just outside of city limits.

“It’s very rewarding watching young students discover things that excite them in a scientific setting,” Tunno said in the release. “Getting outside provides an opportunity for kids to connect with nature and realize that they can have an impact on protecting and preserving the world around them. It can be quite empowering for kids to experience observational learning like this.”

Students and classes that obtain water date throughout the year are invited to present their overall conclusions to other students as well as professionals from southwest washington at Watershed Congress conference in May. 

“This is such exciting work for these young scientists,” teacher Patricia Harmon said in the release. “My class is always eager to get outside to work on this project, and it’s amazing seeing them so engaged with the subject matter.”

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