By Cait Goodwin, Oregon Sea Grant
Think back to when you were in elementary school. Did you participate in a field experience that was so impactful you can still remember it today? “Out of classroom” experiences provide teachers and students the ability to explore local places and relevant issues through hands-on activities and interactions with community partners. These meaningful learning experiences build exposure, connection and curiosity, and often resonate with students well beyond the trip.
Third grade teachers Cristina Bettesworth and Anna Villegas from Highland Elementary School in Reedsport have spent the 2019-20 school year attending multiple professional development workshops to learn strategies for providing meaningful watershed-focused experiences for their students. With guidance from local partners at Oregon Sea Grant and South Slough Reserve, they designed a learning unit filled with lessons and field trips that helped students learn about coastal ecosystems, human impacts, and stewardship. These Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences (MWEEs) are part of the MWEEs by the Sea project, funded by NOAA Bay-Watershed Education Training program.
MWEE Professional Development
MWEEs by the Sea workshops help teachers plan and implement lessons focused on local and global environmental issues.
Photo credit: C. Goodwin
Cristina and Anna planned their third-grade unit together around three main topics: watersheds, salmon, and marine debris. Each topic was introduced in the classroom, followed by hands-on field experiences and connections with environmental professionals that served to further solidify and expand on student learning.
A watershed is the area of land where precipitation collects and drains off into a common outlet, such as into a river, bay, or other body of water.
After students were introduced to the topic of watersheds in the classroom, they took a field trip to South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Charleston in February. With the help of South Slough staff and volunteers, students explored the flora and fauna of the watershed. The students observed how the coastal forest stream is connected to the estuary, experiencing the components of a watershed first-hand as they hiked down from the ridgetop.
Students learn about natural inhabitants of a coastal watershed on a hike down to Hidden Marsh. Photo credit: Cristina Bettesworth
To expand on their knowledge of different watersheds, they also visited other sites, including a local beach. After observing different watersheds in person, the students were able to head back to the classroom and create clay models of regional watersheds to show how water flows through local systems.
Given the importance of salmon as a coastal resource, the Highland Elementary teachers knew it would be a natural fit to incorporate salmon studies into their MWEE unit. Salmon migrate between inland streams and the open ocean, showing students another way that land and sea are connected. In addition, parts of salmon life cycles can be experienced in the classroom, enabling students to study life cycles, an important 3rd grade learning standard!
With the help of volunteers from the Gardiner STEP (Salmon Trout Enhancement Program) facility and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife STEP biologist Evan Leonetti, the students set up tanks for hatching salmon eggs in their classrooms. Students collected water quality and other data and observed the salmon life-cycle in action as the eggs hatched and grew. When the fish were big enough, they were placed in a transfer tank and taken back to the STEP facility.
Young salmon hatched in the classroom are ready to be transported to the STEP facility. Photo credit: Cristina Bettesworth
In addition to hatching eggs in the classroom, the third graders headed off-school grounds and toured a hatchery, visited local salmon habitat, and some students even travelled to Salem to discuss salmon sustainability in south coast rivers.
Marine debris is any solid, persistent, human-created waste that has been deliberately or accidentally introduced into a waterway or ocean.
To engage their students with a human impact that they could not only see and relate to, but also do something about, Cristina and Anna built lessons around the topic of marine debris. The students started this section by learning and researching about marine debris, answering question like: What is it? Where is it? and What are the impacts and possible solutions to the problem of marine debris?
“Sometimes garbage ends up in a stream or river– Annabelle A., Third Grade, Highland Elementary
and will flow into the ocean.”
To further excite students, teachers arranged to have Elizabeth Roberts from Make Art Not Trash visit their classroom. She shared her experiences cleaning up marine debris from remote beaches in Alaska, Hawaii, and Maine, and told the students about the ways she uses art to help people understand the issue.
“Marine debris is a big problem that affects all of us. It happens in all waterways and is not only a problem in the ocean. We can all do our part to solve the marine debris problem. We just have to pick up trash and make sure our trash gets into the correct places.”– Brody S., 3rd Grade, Highland Elementary
Prepared for their field experience, the Highland Elementary 3rd graders took a field trip to Bandon, Oregon, to conduct a beach clean-up at Seven Devils State Park, and to visit the marine debris art exhibits at Washed Ashore. The students took the marine debris that they collected from the beach back to school, separated the trash by types (plastics, microplastics, foam, nurdles, etc.), and graphed their results so they could see what types of debris were most commonly found in their samples. Inspired by the art they had seen from community partners, students used some of the marine debris they collected to create their own art projects. In addition, they wrote essays about the problem of marine debris to help explain marine debris impacts and solutions to others.
“We can help the marine debris issue by picking up our garbage and cleaning our beaches.”– Bodhi L., 3rd Grade, Highland Elementary
Students cleaned up a Bandon beach and were inspired by art made from marine debris. Photo credit: Cristina Bettesworth
Today, the students are working on creating and sharing their essays, art projects, displays and slide presentations with others. You can see some of the student work generated by this project here.
“We can help deal with the problem of marine debris by not using plastic products. We can reuse products so that they don’t end up in the ocean.”– Uriah I., Third Grade, Highland Elementary
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. Reedsport teachers Cristina Bettesworth and Anna Villegas from Highland Elementary are two of 17 South Coast teachers participating in the 2019-20 cohort.