On Gaiser Pond: Middle-schoolers have been doing real science

Program has one year left on five-year federal grant

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

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The GK-12 Project

photoSixth-grade earth science students Molly Hongel, right, and Austin Chou check the phosphate levels in Gaiser Pond. The project was funded by a National Science Foundation grant that has not been renewed.

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Four years ago, the wetland below Gaiser Middle School was being choked by invasive plants and garbage carried by stormwater runoff.

Now dubbed "Gaiser Pond" by the school community, it's being studied and cleaned up, thanks to two dedicated Gaiser science teachers and their students, environmental science graduate students from Washington State University Vancouver, and a program funded by the National Science Foundation.

The Partners in Discovery GK-12 Project brought together environmental science graduate students from WSUV with middle school science teachers in several Clark County districts for real-world science projects.

"Who's measuring turbidity?" Meagan Graves asked her sixth-grade earth science students as she held a glass tube about the height of a second-grader.

Jaden Pikey and Kira Rhodehamel, both 12, student-scientists tasked with measuring the turbidity, or murkiness, of the pond water, carried the tube to the edge of the pond.

Nico Wilbur, 12, Andrew Wisch, 12, and Tyler Yoon, 11, were measuring pH levels and temperature. Other students were checking phosphate levels, pond depth, the presence of aquatic organisms and more.

Using a turkey baster, Madeleine Getz, 12, and Elle Raunig, 13, siphoned up pond water teeming with macroinvertebrates, dividing them by type into compartments of an ice cube tray: snails, aquatic worms, sawbugs, casemakers, clams and a dragonfly nymph.

The students moved confidently, counting how many of each critter they collected, with the assistance of Judy Bufford from the Water Resources Education Center.

"We use the data analysis we do down here for other projects we're working on," Elle said.

"Sometimes, if the climate is colder or warmer, we get different kinds of bugs," Madeleine said.

Once a month during the school year, Graves' students and Charlene Shea's seventh-grade life science classes conduct field research at the pond. They take samples, record their findings and compare them to previous samplings.

Graves and Shea signed up for the GK-12 project in 2008, the first year it was offered. They conceived the Gaiser Pond project and have been involved ever since.

The funding for the five-year program hasn't been renewed. Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, director of the program and an associate professor at WSUV, said she hopes foundations involved in STEM education might step forward to extend the project.

She said such projects are "making science more engaging. Getting kids to have authentic science experiences."

After students collected their samples, Graves gathered them on the pond's bank to discuss their findings.

"Zoey just said the invasive plants are choking out the water. What else is affecting the flow?" she asked.

As class ended, the students walked back to their classroom. Their year of field work in this outdoor classroom was complete.

"I'm really going to miss this place," one girl said. Then she turned and walked up the hill toward the school.

Susan Parrish: 360-735-4530; http://twitter.com/col_schools; susan.parrish@columbian.com.

View a video on Gaiser Pond on The Columbian's YouTube Channel.