Mother Nature's classroom

Hundreds of Clark County students get hands-on instruction at annual Watersheds Festival

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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Hundreds of kids on Friday afternoon learned science in the most natural way: from Mother Nature.

The fourth-graders from east Clark County schools spent the day at Cottonwood Beach in Washougal, learning about natural sciences by getting wet and dirty. As part of the annual Watersheds Festival the students learned about water quality, salmon habitats, recycling and decomposition.

The two-day festival is sponsored by the Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center, a nonprofit group based at Vancouver's historic trout hatchery along Evergreen Highway.

Volunteer presenters taught at learning stations, allowing the students a hands-on look at science, said

JoAnne Dolan, sustainability programs director for Columbia Springs.

"They're learning by doing and exploring, which is a great thing," Dolan said.

Columbia Springs, with the help of several local agencies, including the city of Vancouver and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, offered the festival to the school districts for free and provided transportation to the event. The Watersheds Festival, which has taken place for 20 years, explores the ecosystems of different parts of Clark County each year. In previous years the festival has taken place in the Amboy area and at Salmon Creek's Klineline Pond, Dolan said.

The schools that participate are generally those in the surrounding area of the festival. Over the course of Thursday and Friday, about 1,000 students took part in this year's event.

On Friday, such activities included allowing the students to build a miniature replica watershed. First, the students learned the basics of how a watershed is sustained and then used sand to build waterways.

"I think they really loved it," Dolan said. "I heard kids say, 'Wow, this is so cool.'"

Dolan said the festival is especially important as school districts have increasingly tight budgets and may not be able to offer alternatives to basic education.

"Gradually, these type of programs have been whittled away," she said.