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  • WEN

Hellgate Elementary Exploration by Bailey Bartell

Hey everyone! I felt incredibly lucky to go with Deb, the Executive Director of WEN, to the classroom as well as the field on this recent project that we accomplished. The WEN team and about 20 volunteers took the entirety of Hellgate Elementary’s second grade class to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) for a field trip. With support from the Hellgate PTA, WEN was able to reach close to 180 students in order to expose them to the river ecosystem.

While in the classroom, Deb began the lesson connecting the students to the river by thinking about things they already know. We talked about what allows us to know that a river is healthy and what we wonder about rivers. We drew pictures of what a healthy river looks like and we collected some wonderful curiosities from the kids like: how far does the river go? Where does it come from? How do we know if it is clean? How do the bugs get there? In addition to introducing musings about the Clark Fork River, we played games and sang songs to help us learn how to identify a mayfly, stonefly and caddisfly. These were the same aquatic macroinvertebrates that we searched for during our field trip at Grant Creek.

On the mornings of our five field trip days, volunteers arrived to the RMEF early to collect insects from the creek for the students to search for in tubs and identify. I was able to guide the experience for students as they found and sorted these various aquatic macroinvertebrates. The level of excitement that was derived from each insect was contagious. Each time a student found a new insect, they would exclaim and treat it like a prize they won. This reaction came from all the students. It was really fun to watch the students who were hesitant in the beginning become excited and involved in the process of searching through the tubs of cold water, insects and detritus. The energy was palpable and helped to create an engaging and positive learning environment.

In addition to finding macroinvertebrates, the students wandered through the property on their riparian walk. They were introduced to the concept of what makes up a riparian area and the benefits of maintaining the natural spaces next to our water sources. We talked about what animals live there, what plants and space help to create a healthy riparian area and took time to connect to the place. We accomplished this by taking interactive walks around RMEF’s property. We listened to the creek sounds, made observations about the downed trees and tall grasses and became young scientists by drawing in our field journals to document our findings.

We ended our afternoons with an active game, Macroinvertebrate Mayhem that models what happens to our rivers when heat and sediment are introduced to the cold mountain streams. The students were a caddisfly, stonefly, or mayfly and moved down a cold, clear river. As heat and sediment moved into the river as well, the cold water insects changed to warm water compatible insects. At the end, we discussed how the river goes through yearly cycles and why it is important to maintain healthy conditions of cold, clear rivers as much as possible.

I feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed the relationships build with WEN from introductions to waving goodbye after being told one thing that they learned while being with us.