Gold Beach Students Explore Watershed Issues

By Cait Goodwin, Oregon Sea Grant
with Debra Watson, Riley Creek School and Lindsay Carroll, Oregon Sea Grant

When rain falls on Riley Creek School, where does it end up? Are there pollutants in the watershed that could travel to the ocean? Debra Watson’s 5th grade students wanted to find out.

On a rainy day in December, the students headed outside to collect data that could help answer some of their questions. “It was a day when we were having rain and 60MPH gusts of wind, so we were WET!” recalled Debra. Walking around the schoolyard, students observed that the grounds were generally free of litter. But, what about the dog poop they observed near the school? Would the dog poop have an impact on surrounding areas? This led to a great discussion about what is in rainwater and where it goes. The students were left curious about where the water runoff from their playground went after it disappeared down the storm drain.

Riley Creek School is located just south of the Rogue River in Gold Beach, Oregon, and is named after a small creek that flows into the Pacific Ocean. Its location provides students with ample opportunities to explore the watershed and to make connections between the land and sea.

Debra began planning her watershed unit in November, when she first joined a cohort of other south coast teachers in a year-long MWEEs by the Sea project. “MWEE” stands for Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences, a framework used by the NOAA Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) program, which funded a professional development series facilitated by Oregon Sea Grant in partnership with South Slough Reserve. To ensure field experiences would be “meaningful” for their students, Debra and the other MWEE teachers created long-term project-based learning units that would take their students on repeated, hands-on trips outside to learn about watersheds, local environmental issues, and stewardship opportunities.

Debra Watson participated in several teacher professional development trainings in 2019-20. In this photo she is taking part in a workshop focused on marine debris. Photo credit: C. Goodwin

Here are some highlights from Debra’s classroom activities in early 2020.

JANUARY
After their initial stormy field experience, the Riley Creek 5th graders spent the early weeks of January learning more about their watershed through readings, discussions, and videos. To introduce her students to the problem of plastic pollution in the watershed and ocean, Debra used curriculum from Washed Ashore and then took her students on a field trip to the exhibits in Bandon. “The students got to work on pieces for a condor sculpture, and they just thought the museum was the coolest thing they had ever seen.” said Debra. “They were thrilled to be there.”

three students examine a wall mural showing ocean gyres
Riley Creek 5th Grade Field trip to Washed Ashore.
Photo credits: Debra Watson

To prepare for their trip to Washed Ashore, local artist Elizabeth Roberts from Make Art Not Trash visited the students in their classroom. Her presentation about marine debris and the conversations that followed helped set up the students to understand what they would be seeing during their out of classroom experience. “They all know what a gyre is now,” Debra reported, “and they were able to match the artistic mural of gyres that they saw on the wall at Washed Ashore with the NOAA pictures they had seen back in the classroom.”

FEBRUARY
In February, Debra’s students conducted experiments to learn more about the characteristics of marine debris. They made hypotheses about whether different types of plastics were likely to sink or float in water, and then tested their ideas. They observed how plastics can hang in the water column and create a “soup”, how bottles full or empty behave differently, and how plastics might look like food to wildlife.

Late in the month, the students took a field trip to the new state-of-the-art Gold Beach Sewage Plant, as well as to the Water Treatment Plant located 5 miles upriver.

The students found out the differences between the two plants, and learned that their drinking water comes from the Rogue River.

“We are in the Rogue River watershed.”

Two Plants: One processes wastewater from people’s houses, and one gives us clean water to drink.

Back at school, the 5th graders spent time outside exploring Riley Creek and collecting macroinvertebrates. These “water bugs” helped them better understand the health of the creek.

MARCH
By March, the students were ready to brainstorm the issues they wanted to explore further. They discussed their interests and ideas, formed groups, and narrowed down the topics to a few main projects:

  1. Dog Poop – How does dog poop that is not picked up affect the school field, grassy play areas, and stormwater that flows to the ocean? This group was interested in coming up with policies, outreach messages, and other strategies to change the behavior of dog owners. 
  2. Marine Debris Art – How can we help the public understand the problem of marine debris? This group was interested in creating art projects that communicate marine debris impacts and solutions.
     – See examples of projects
  3. Beach Clean Up – What can students do to remove debris from local beaches? This group was interested in working with SOLVE to organize and advertise a beach clean-up event.
  4. PSAs – What kinds of things can people do to protect the environment? This group used Scratch.mit.edu to create digital media public service announcements.
     – See examples of projects here and here
  5. Inventions – What solutions could we design to address the problem of plastic pollution? One team in this group focused on ideas for inventions that would keep plastics from going down storm drains, and another team worked on designing an instrument that would separate microplastics from sand.
    Hear a student describe his design
Students working on projects at school.
Photo credit: Debra Watson

TRANSITION TO DISTANCE LEARNING
Today, as school has transitioned to distance learning, Debra and her 5th grade students remain enthusiastic about the topics they have been working on together. “We had just begun working when the pandemic hit” said Debra. Unfortunately, plans for additional field trips were canceled, and student projects were left in a variety of stages when schools closed. To see some of the projects students have been working on this year, visit this Student Work Folder.  For now, the Riley Creek team agrees: “We really enjoyed learning about watersheds!”

———————-
Cait Goodwin is a Special Projects Coordinator with Oregon Sea Grant Marine Education, and she coordinates the “MWEEs by the Sea” teacher professional development program in partnership with Jaime Belanger from South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. Gold Beach teacher Debra Watson from Riley Creek School is one of 17 South Coast teachers participating in the 2019-20 MWEES by the Sea cohort.

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