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July 29, 2021

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Living lab at Mount St. Helens

Battle Ground, Vancouver students get rare opportunity to learn from on-site volcano field research

By , Columbian Education Reporter
8 Photos
On a hilltop near the Miner's Car site at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, students from CASEE in Battle Ground prepare to conduct terrestrial sampling of ground cover, canopy and soils.
On a hilltop near the Miner's Car site at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, students from CASEE in Battle Ground prepare to conduct terrestrial sampling of ground cover, canopy and soils. This area has been allowed to return naturally so that scientists can observe the ecological succession 34 years after the 1980 eruption. Photo Gallery

CASCADE PEAKS, Mount St. Helens — A double rainbow emerged between Mount St. Helens and a group of students, teachers and scientists gathered to conduct field tests at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

When heavy rain pelted the group, they shrugged into raincoats and plastic ponchos and kept listening to a discussion about conducting field research.

Not many high school students have the opportunity to conduct field studies on a volcano.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many students,” said Abi Grosskopf, science education director of the Mount St. Helens Institute. “For many, it is their first time to Mount St. Helens, first time camping and first time sinking their hands and minds into the messy but real-world process of field-based sciences.”

This is the fourth year in which area students have taken part in the institute’s High School Field Study Project. Between Sept. 13 and Oct. 3, biology and environmental science students from six Southwest Washington school districts participated in field studies on Mount St. Helens. The schools were selected by the institute, and Clark County was represented by students from the Center for Agriculture, Science and Environmental Education in Battle Ground Public Schools and iTech Preparatory from Vancouver Public Schools.

“Mount St. Helens is a living laboratory to study ecosystem change and a place rich in diverse careers in science and technology,” said Grosskopf.

It was the first year that Irene Catlin’s students from CASEE in Battle Ground joined the research team. For three weeks before their field experience, Catlin’s environmental science students practiced scientific protocols just as they’d do them on Mount St. Helens. In the forest at CASEE, students set up plots, took soil samples, identified and measured trees and more.

On the mountain, students would study two very different landscapes. At the Meta Lake site, young trees survived the May 18, 1980, blast because they were buried under 10 feet of snow. In sharp contrast is the blown-down forest on a hilltop above the Miner’s Car site.

Groups divided into research teams and using hand-held GPS devices navigated to the morning’s field sites near Meta Lake, where young trees, frogs and fish buried under snowpack survived.

Low-tech tools

Most of the tools used by students were decidedly low-tech. After locating the green stake indicating the center of the field site, students used a compass to determine north, south, east and west. Students armed with a measuring tape and a 1-meter square made with white PVC pipe set to work determining the plant content of sample quadrats, a method ecologists use to count and categorize plant populations. A second student holding a clipboard and mechanical pencil recorded the measurements on data sheets printed on waterproof paper. Ordinary paper would disintegrate in the heavy rain.

“I realized how different it is to practice at CASEE and do it in at a real site,” said Amanda Wood, a sophomore.

As the students finished their measurements, the rain stopped. Groskopf handed student Nathan Hunt a spade, a ruler and a plastic bag, and instructed him to collect four soil samples, one from each quadrat. Later, she delivered each group’s soil samples to a Longview lab that analyzes levels of nitrogen, carbon and other elements.

“We want a diversity of matter in the soil samples,” Groskopf said. “The ash is pretty deep.”

She picked up a pumice fragment and rolled it in her hand.

Meanwhile, another team of students counted the trees in the sample area — 27, all Noble fir. The largest was 35 centimeters in diameter.

Although the research gathered by the students is not used by scientists, it mirrors the work of researchers on the mountain, said Charlie Crisafulli, an ecologist at the Pacific Northwest Research Station. He arrived on the mountain just a few weeks after the blast and has been studying the aftermath of the eruption for 34 years.

“The primary purpose of the student studies is to allow students to go through the scientific process much as professional researchers do, including generating study questions, learning appropriate sampling protocols, gathering data, performing data analyses, interpreting their results and presenting their study to peers and others at a scientific conference,” Crisafulli said.

Students visit Mount St. Helens for two days to collect data on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, under the guidance of professional researchers, land managers and graduate students. When students return to their classrooms, they enter their data on spreadsheets and email them to Groskopf, who compiles data from all six schools and sends them back to the teachers. Using the data from all the schools, students learn to ask a research question, analyze data and prepare a poster presentation. In December, all six schools will converge at WSU Vancouver to present to student peers and scientists.

Before lunch, students worked at two sites near Meta Lake.

After gathering data, students returned to school vans where they ate lunch and warmed up before the afternoon field work on a hilltop near the Miner’s Car site. The site is marked by the rusted remains of a 1972 Pontiac Grand Prix that was blasted 60 feet into the air, filling with sand and rocks.

Blown-down trees

The devastation around the Miner’s Car site is still evident. That area has been allowed to recover naturally.

“Abi (Groskopf)pointed out how the lateral blast blew all the trees in the same direction,” sophomore Taylor Adams said. “I probably wouldn’t have noticed that.”

Groskopf said the program’s two main goals are “to expose students to a field study and to expose them to scientists,” she said. “The younger the scientists, the more real it is for the high school students.”

About half of the scientists are from the U.S. Forest Service, while the other half work for the World Forestry Institute, the Washington Department of Natural Resources or are students at WSU Vancouver.

“It was cool to be up there on the mountain with people who do that for a career,” said Colby Wolford, a junior.

He said he may pursue a career in science, and perhaps work in fish hatcheries or animal preservation.

As a graduate student, teacher Catlin spent the summer of 2013 conducting research on Mount St. Helens. That’s how she met Groskopf and Crisafulli and inquired how her CASEE students could have the same type of field research experience she had.

“They take away so many things when they do a field study like this,” Catlin said. “The background, the history, the protocols — how to collect the data. Then we got up there, collecting the data as a team. Now we’re analyzing the data, determining a focus question.”

The Battle Ground students camped overnight in large canvas tents at Ridge Camp near Windy Ridge. It’s the same camp researchers stay during other time of the year.

The high school program is funded by Washington STEM Foundation, U.S. Forest Service Gifford Pinchot Children’s Forest Award and Weyerhaeuser Giving Fund.

Ecologist Crisafulli has accompanied many student research trips and recalled an “Aha” moment when students understood the difference between lands actively managed versus lands that are recovering naturally.

Teeming with life

“They were shocked to see how resilient nature is, and if left alone, how a site could develop such an amazingly rich and complex ecosystem,” Crisafulli said. “They realized that while an active approach to management — salvage logging and subsequent planting — may yield a vigorous young stand of conifers that will undoubtedly have timber value down the road, it was otherwise a nearly sterile environment when compared to the passively managed sites that teemed with life.”

“There’s such a great story, a rich history, that it’s easy to get the kids interested,” said teacher Catlin. “The history, the geology, the biology, the ecology, how life returns from catastrophic disturbance.”

“Many students are awestruck by the raw power of the geological forces that were unleashed on May 18, 1980, and equally impressed and moved by the capacity of nature to rebound from such an intense insult,” said Crisafulli. “When they hear that the area they just entered was filled by a gigantic rockfall avalanche and then incinerated by a super-heated, stone-filled volcanic blast that removed every vestige of pre-eruption life and that every plant they see blowing in the wind, and every frog they hear chorusing, and every bird they hear singing, and insect the see flying, mammal they see scurrying, and every snake they see slithering somehow managed to arrive at the site, some hopping, some flying, some crawling, some burrowing, some hitchhiking on other organisms, it makes them stop and realize just how powerful nature is.”

“They were all energized from the experience,” Catlin said. “I have a few students who want to go into fisheries or wildlife biology, environmental engineering. We have (former) students who have gone into scientific fields. Those are the students who keep in touch with us because CASEE had a profound effect on them.”

“Being up there on the mountain when it was cloudy and misty was an awe-inspiring experience,” Colby Wolford said.

“It sparked something in me to consider forestry schools,” said Taylor Adams, a sophomore. “Being up on the mountain with CASEE. I felt we were so lucky to have the opportunity.”

Mount St. Helens ecological research experience for high school students

What: Working with scientists, students conduct hands-on research.

Who: Biology and environmental science students from six Southwest Washington high schools. Participating Clark County students represent iTech Preparatory from Vancouver and CASEE from Battle Ground.

On the Web: Visit

On the Web

VolcanoCam: See updated, real-time images of Mount St. Helens from the Johnston Ridge Observatory at 4,200 feet, about 5 miles from the volcano. The cameras look south-southeast across the North Fork Toutle River Valley. View online at

Detailed map: View a detailed map of Mount St. Helens National Monument at

Mount St. Helens Institute: Visit

Center for Agriculture, Science and Environmental Education with Battle Ground Public Schools: Visit


Columbian Education Reporter