A La Center High School teacher is taking her students from the classroom out to the field to study what’s threatening life in one of north Clark County’s most popular fishing holes.
Teri Newman, who teaches several science classes at the school, is planning to begin a longitudinal study of water quality in the East Fork of the Lewis River next school year. The project will put Newman’s senior and junior marine biology and zoology students in charge of testing the water and its life forms in a study designed to continue for years to come.
Though the river tends to have a relatively good habitat for salmon, the Department of Ecology has long recorded threateningly high temperatures and levels of fecal coliform bacteria in the water. The bacteria come from human and animal waste — often seeping into waterways from failing septic systems and animal waste nearby. Consumption can pose serious health risks, especially as the bacteria are often an indicator of other pathogens in the water.
Starting this fall, Newman’s students will gather and record the results of recurring samples from the river. The process will allow them to monitor changes, not just in water quality but in the presence of invasive species that may threaten the lives of keystone microorganisms.
“It’s data I would like to keep over the years,” she said. “And you actually would get a pretty good idea of the health of the East Fork of the Lewis River.”
Newman’s funding the project with a $7,000 grant from the Partners in Science Supplemental Program, an initiative run by Vancouver’s M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The money will go toward one-time equipment purchases, including stereoscopes and nets to collect living specimens from the river.
Newman was one of just nine teachers throughout Washington to receive one of the grants this year. The program aims to support high school science teachers who are moving research forward and adopting new inquiry-based teaching methods.
The aim of the program is that the teachers will encourage more students to build careers in scientific research. For Newman, the project is all about kindling an interest in science and an understanding of what goes into real research.
“I do feel the students need to be aware of the environment and the impact on organisms,” she said. “But I hope that they actually understand a little bit more about research and get more enjoyment out of science.”
Once a month, Newman’s students will use nets to gather plankton and other life forms from the river and bring their samples back to the classroom. Then, they’ll view the organisms on slides under stereoscopes and document their findings in a journal.
They’ll also use kits to track levels of dissolved oxygen, acidity and temperature, key measures for the water quality of a river.
“The first year is kind of a baseline,” she said. “But they should notice a change in the community of the zooplankton, and hopefully that will raise some questions.”
Uncertainty is the essence of the project, she said. Instead of leading her students to a pre-drawn conclusion, Newman has no idea what they’ll find, but she knows the data will be telling.
The project stems from a study Newman conducted over the past two summers an ecology research team at WSU Vancouver. During her time in the water, Newman discovered a declining population of diatoms, and she theorized that a rise in an invasive species may have been killing them off.
Newman’s students will continue to work with the researchers, as well, picking up where they left off. And she hopes to continue the study in perpetuity, perhaps eventually finding out what’s been killing those microorganisms.
“It’s very open ended,” Newman said, “because they may never find the answer, but it’s going to give them an opportunity to do research.”