A group of students waded through the icy waters of the Muddy River near Mount St. Helens on Thursday, nets at the ready.
Alongside them, Lisa Harlan moved a metal loop through the water. She activated a switch on the wand attached to the loop, and a beeping noise sounded through the woods.
The small group now stood in water charged with 500 volts of electricity. The humans were insulated by thick rubber boots and gloves. The fish weren’t.
Within seconds, the students scooped up stunned fingerling salmon and carried them off to be measured and weighed.
The meeting between students and scientists in the forest near Swift Reservoir was organized by the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council. The purpose was to motivate more students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — fields. It was the council’s first such effort in Clark County.
Following their field trip, the teens got some face time with researchers at Washington State University Vancouver on Friday, where they analyzed the previous day’s findings and found out more about career and college options.
A living wage
The two-day activity — a brainchild of the development council’s Mary Brown — brought in experts from several organizations.
There were professionals from Smith-Root, the Vancouver company that makes the electro-fishing equipment used by Harlan, a Smith-Root biologist. U.S. Forest Service employees showed the students how they work to maintain healthy rivers in Southwest Washington. Scientists from the Mount St. Helens Institute shared their expertise on-site.
All of them — including the WSUV staff — volunteered their time. Corporate sponsors picked up the minimal costs to shuttle the group around and feed it lunch. It’s a cost-effective way to help young people make
sound career decisions, said Brown, the STEM expedition’s creator.
The development council’s fundamental mission is to connect people with living-wage jobs, she said. It does so by retraining adult workers who’ve been laid off and by letting young people explore in-demand careers.
“STEM jobs are available and pay a living wage,” Brown said. “There is a lot of growth expected (in STEM fields) in Southwest Washington.”
The program tries to focus on students who are showing potential in STEM classes but who seem to need a little push to pursue such a career. It also looks for low-income teens whose parents may not be familiar with the careers available in these fields.
The 25 students from all over Clark County got on a school bus in Battle Ground early Thursday and headed up the mountain.
At the Muddy River Picnic Area, they split up into two groups. One stayed at the Muddy River, which was inundated with ash and silt after the mountain erupted 32 years ago. The other group went to Clear Creek, a tributary that was untouched by the catastrophe.
Both groups caught fish in the streams, measured and weighed them and checked the water quality of their habitats. They measured temperature and acidity of the water. They also checked how much oxygen, phosphates, nitrates and silt was dissolved in each stream.
They would compare results the next day. But first came the field work in a beautiful setting.
“I was car-sick the whole way up,” said Brian Connolly, a sophomore from Washougal High School. “But this is so worth it.”
The other students seemed equally enthusiastic about being out in nature. They asked questions of the scientists and volunteered for the various tasks.
Soon after their arrival, students knelt by the stream, holding probes attached to digital meters into the water and dissolving ph-indicator tablets in vials of river water.
“The kids love being up there,” Brown said the next day.
After the first-ever such activity put on by the council — in Cowlitz County last fall — Brown noticed several students got that last push they needed to fully commit to studying a STEM field in college.
This one seemed no different.
Brian, who had a little trouble with the long bus ride, felt inspired to use the field trip experience as soon as he’d get back to his high school. He had originally signed up because he loves to fish and wanted to know more about the science of fishery management.
But just one hour into hanging out with the experts on the mountain, he thought about incorporating STEM education into the outdoor-sports club he and his friends are starting at Washougal High.
Others were already determined to study STEM-related fields.
Fallon Biancaniello, a senior from Fort Vancouver High School, is headed to Clark College to start her studies this fall. She plans to get her bachelor’s in forestry from Oregon State University, she said.
She’s a hunter and wants to see forests preserved.
“And I like being outside and getting my hands dirty,” she said.
Oscar Morales, a Battle Ground student who attends the Center for Agriculture, Science, and Environmental Education, possibly wants to study agriculture.
“Wildlife is my thing,” he said.
He was in the perfect place on the fish measurement station — the junior is thinking about a career in fish hatcheries.
Of course, science isn’t just observing nature in a pretty setting.
“You use the observations to raise some questions,” Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, a professor in WSUV’s School of the Environment, told the students during the campus portion Friday.
“Scientists see what’s happening out in the world and answer why it’s happening,” she said.
First, the students had to analyze the data they’d gathered. The field activity also was an exercise to show students the potential mistakes in recording data. When they were ready to type their findings into a computer spreadsheet, the students noticed missing -units, illegible entries and other errors on the sheets they filled out the day before.
The future researchers had learned lesson one.
“When you do field work, you have to make sure everyone’s on the same page,” said Ray Yurkewycz, a science-education coordinator from the Mount St. Helens Institute.
He was teaching the students how to use Microsoft Excel to sort their findings and turn them into graphs. They showed that the Muddy River contained a little less oxygen, was a little warmer and a little more acidic than was Clear Creek.
During a session with Mark Watrin, who trains high school science teachers for Educational Service District 112, the students learned about landslides, such as the violent event that had filled the Muddy River with silt and ash.
They also learned a more basic lesson about integrating their skills.
“When you get a job, you don’t do a separate math portion and a separate science portion and a separate writing portion,” Watrin told the students. “The school world doesn’t always do a good job of modeling what it’s like to be a scientist.”
But these 25 students had a much better idea now.