By KATHRYN TRUE
For The Beachcomber
“This is your job?” a high school biology student asked incredulously, knee-deep in Shinglemill Creek, as she helped Maria Metler catalog juvenile salmonids.
The awe and admiration she heard in the question made Metler smile, who as a Vashon Nature Center education specialist, enjoys introducing students to a side of science they likely haven’t experienced before.
“We’ve helped solidify student curiosity and opened up people’s eyes to the breadth of what science can be,” Metler said, noting that most students like being outside doing hands-on science. “This project shows them that not everything has to be so structured and by the book — this kind of learning experience is very rewarding.”
Over the spring semester, 60 students from three Vashon Island High School biology classes worked with adult scientists and volunteers to collect field data for three citizen science projects run by the Vashon Nature Center; two of the projects are also part of regional and national monitoring efforts. The teams will share their findings at ED Talks (the nature center’s research- focused spin on TED Talks) on June 4 at Vashon Center for the Arts.
“The project is great to me for several reasons,” said Vashon Island High School biology teacher Jordan Browning. “Students get to do real environmental science fieldwork at a location off-campus; they’re exposed to careers in environmental science; they rigorously analyze real data that they helped collect to answer questions that they pose, and the work that they do makes an actual difference: Various management agencies use the data they collect to make decisions about the Puget Sound region.”
Following their field research, students worked in groups to analyze data and create scientific posters that outline their findings and pose further questions about these projects:
BeachNET: As part of a broader Puget Sound effort, students sampled a suite of shoreline features to gain insight into how shoreline armoring (bulkheads) affects forage fish, a keystone species in the food web. They completed a sediment survey and beach profile (measurement of the beach angle), recorded terrestrial insects (and collected them to be identified later), cataloged beach wrack (how much of the debris left after high tide is organic, what seaweeds are present and how much of it is human made) and measured large woody debris.
Sea Star Wasting Syndrome Monitoring Survey: Student teams visited three beaches — Raab’s Lagoon, Maury Island Marine Park and KVI — where they measured a fixed area of study and looked for sea stars within those boundaries. They recorded all sea stars found, including those with any signs of the syndrome, a widespread viral disease that over the past few years has caused sea star populations to plummet from Alaska to California. They also photographed and categorized diseased stars based on the level of wasting they observed.
Juvenile Salmonid Creek Survey: To study redd (salmon nest) success, students collected and worked to identify juvenile salmonids in Ellis, Shinglemill and Judd Creeks. They also took note of chinook or other species that, even if they don’t spawn here, use sheltered creek waters for habitat as juveniles. Recent studies have found young chinook in small streams where these fish do not spawn — evidence that they are using streams as rearing habitats in conjunction with the estuaries they’ve long been known to use.
“It’s important to remember that the skill of observation is not just a science skill, it’s a life skill,” Metler says. “To allow youth to key into a strength that we all have and help them tap powers they have as individuals, not just in science but in life, is pretty powerful. To me, science is a series of questions, and it’s important for youth to remember that even adults don’t have answers to all the questions.”
Like Browning, Metler likes how these projects connect students to science on a larger scale.
“This work validates the students’ efforts because teens often don’t feel they are taken seriously,” Metler says. “For them to collect data that is added to databases used on a regional level and even worldwide is empowering and important.”