Four weeks ago, I began this internship seeking experience in environmental education and field work. So far, I have gotten just that. In just the past two weeks, I have worked with over 40 students from 5 to 15 years old. The students' enthusiasm and curiosity has blown me away and made me even more excited for the programs that lie ahead.
Last week, Amanda Kuenzi and I guided 15 Boston middle-schoolers around Durango and Silverton. After students spent a day practicing macroinvertebrate sampling in Junction Creek, we designed an experiment to test the effects of pollution from cement creek on the macroinvertebrate community downstream. The students jumped in to the project with enthusiasm, quickly gaining an understanding of the complex interactions that oxygen, temperature, pH and particulates play in overall stream health.
During our final day with the group, we switched from aquatic to terrestrial ecology. Among the verdant slopes and raging waterfalls of Cunnigham Gulch, we documented signs and sightings of American Pika, a temperature-sensitive species that is considered one of the best early indicators of changing (warming) climates in the US. From there, we drove up South Mineral Creek Road, stopping at beaver dams to discuss the ecosystem services of wetlands. During our final hike up the Ice Lakes Trail, I was amazed to hear students point out Douglas fir and native flowers after they had spent only three days in an entirely new ecosystem.
Last week, we switched over to working with younger, local students at Silverton School. Every year, Mountain Studies Institute leads three days of Ecology Camp for the students. We spent our first day in the school garden. Kay Phelps, kicked off the camp with a discussion on seeds and their different mechanisms of dispersal, from dandelions that blow in the wind to grass seeds that stick to your socks. We also dissected lima beans and identified all the parts of a plant contained within the tiny seed coat. Next, students each chose a flower to examine and draw with a "scientist's eye and an artist's hand." After reviewing the life cycles and needs of plants, we dug into the soil and planted seeds. Each team tackled an area of the garden, planting radishes, kale, edible flowers, carrots, chard, peas, and more.
Our second day together was even more exciting than the first; the younger group, grades K-3, examined benthic macroinvertebrates with awe, exclaiming that they "never would have imagined there are so many little animals in the river!" The older students, grades 4-8, spent the afternoon in Cunningham Gulch learning about glacial geomorphology through sand sculptures with MK Gunn of San Juan Mountain Association. During our third and final day, the younger group focused on trees while the older ones got their own time with macroinvertebrates. The young kids were quick to figure out the stresses caused by overcrowded forests, droughts, and floods when we played "Every Tree for Itself." With both groups, we created a display town to explore watersheds and pollution. Each student had the chance to help build the town, identify pollution, create rain to wash the pollution downstream, and identify solutions to pollution.
Although I know I have so much more to learn about education, I'm amazed at how well everything has gone thus far. My initial fears of failing to teach the students feel far away now. One student even asked, "how do you come up with so many creative, fun activities for us?" I am grateful to have had the expertise of Amanda, Kay and MK as we planned and implemented the lessons for the last two weeks. I'm hopeful the next seven weeks will be as impactful and rewarding as the first four.