Local Teachers Learn to Make the Outdoors Their Classroom

September 7, 2015 Updated: September 7, 2015

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Bonni Villaman and Deanna Wilson, both elementary school teachers, set the tone of the day early by ramming their canoe into a kayak being piloted by another teacher.

Later, two other kayaking teachers ambushed a different canoe, attacking it from both sides by splashing its occupants with their paddles.

And of course, after taking a dip near the end of a river trek, a few dripping-wet teachers hugged a dry teacher, so she too got to enjoy the sensation of being soaked.

Of course, the teachers also spent some most of their time on the river learning about how to teach lessons that incorporate the outdoors.

Preparing teachers to do lessons in which kids do things such as macroinvertebrate sampling and water quality tests was a major focus of the four-day workshop, which ended with the river trip. (The workshop was put on by the Institute for Applied Ecology, the Corvallis School District and other partners, with help from a grant from the Gray Family Foundation.)

But the chance for teachers to get to know each other and bond through the outdoor data collection and activities has its own benefit: Wilson, who teaches third grade at Franklin School, said the relationships the teachers are developing will enable them to support each other and share resources and ideas.

“We didn’t all know each other, and now we’re getting to know each other. Ramming is a way to get to know each other,” she said, as she attempted to explain why she had rammed the other canoe. (She added that she is a friend of one of the teachers in the rammed canoe). She also claimed that she and Villamin had been “learning to control the canoe.”

Despite this “incident,” Larkin Guenther, the environmental education coordinator with the Institute for Applied Ecology, said that the 16 teachers in the workshop were actually much better behaved than many teachers she’s taught.

“I’ve been shocked by teacher groups before,” she said, adding that there is often talking and texting. “It’s stuff like ‘you would be so angry if your students were doing this.'”

However, Guenther pointed to two reasons why this group had behaved better: First, all the participants had voluntarily chosen to attend the workshop.

And, second, Gunther said: The lessons were almost all held outdoors, she said, testament to the power of the scenery to engage not just teachers, but also students.

Stacy Moore, the ecological education program director with the institute, said that the workshop’s goal was to give teachers confidence to teach lessons that involve nature.

“Teachers have often said they don’t feel like they have the expertise to take their kids out in the outdoors,” she said.

Another goal, she said, was helping the teachers realize how many resources are available for free to schools from organizations such as the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, or some of their local partners, such as the Greenbelt Land Trust, the Marys River Watershed Council, and Oregon State University’s StreamWebs program.

Moving Downstream

Moore said as the workshop progressed, the lessons for the teachers followed tributaries from the mountains down to the Willamette River. They started by doing lessons with the teachers at Wells Creek on the Alsea Highway. The next day, the participants moved down to Greasy Creek and then later studied the Marys River.

The last day was spent on the Willamette River. While on the Willamette the teachers had a special lesson at a bed of freshwater mussels, did water testing, sampled macroinvertebrates and observed birds.

Jeff Mitchell, a retired Philomath High School science teacher, presented the lessons on the western pearlshell mussels.

He said giving students a chance to do lessons where they are doing real-world data collection gives them a chance to get really engaged. In fact, the bed of mussels he showed the teachers on Thursday is the site of a research study he’d involved his students with for a decade.

During his lesson, he helped the teachers learn how to find the mussels and lead a discussion about their biology. Much of the discussion centered on the fact that the teachers did not find any adolescent mussels. Mitchell said this was expected — in 10 years of having his students do annual day-long surveys at the site where they collected, measured and released more than a thousand of the mussels, they never found adolescent mussels.

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Mitchell told the group that this had been verified by more in-depth investigations, all of which concluded that the mussels at the site are not reproducing. Oregon State University researchers have determined that some of the mussels at the site are about 55 years old. Their lifespan is around 60 to 70 years.

“(Mussels) are kinda boring when you look at them, but when you start to learn about them they are interesting,” he said.

Mitchell said the mussels have a complicated life cycle: their sexual reproduction depends on males releasing their genetic material in the water and the females filtering it out, and their eggs are released in the current and depend on getting caught in the gills of salmon species, where they can leech blood for survival while getting a ride upstream. They then drop out of the gills after about a month and then grow to maturity.

Mitchell said many things could be responsible for the decline of the mussels: depletion of salmon populations, increasing acidity of water as a result of atmospheric carbon dioxide that affects shell growth, and chlorine byproducts released into the water by treatment plants, which have been proven to effect mussels in research studies.

While Mitchell said mussels aren’t a critical species, they are an important indicator of the overall health of the waterway.

Nathan Harris, an Adams Elementary School fourth grade teacher, said after participating in the workshop he wants to do his own stream-research lessons and a restoration project.

“It gets kids connecting with their world and lets them know they can make positive changes,” he said.

He said he’s brought students to programs where they did similar lessons, which were put on by other organizations. The problem with that, he said, is if the program dries up, he wouldn’t be able to continue the lessons.

Now, he feels capable of doing the lessons himself, and is planning four different stream research visits for his class this year.

“This gives me the confidence to go out in whatever stream I choose and do my own project,” he said.

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