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THE LIVING LABORATORY OF MOUNT ST. HELENS

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In a project with the Mount St. Helens Institute, students and teachers are partnering with area scientists and learning alongside one another.

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While Wahluke high school biology teacher Joe Kiesel-Nield has been camping since he was one year old, he’d never thought of the outdoors as a living laboratory.
 
Yet after working with the Mount St. Helens Institute on a project that linked high school teachers and students with area scientists to explore the Mount St. Helens volcano and surrounding areas, Kiesel-Nield has gained an entirely new perspective.
 
"It was a lifetime opportunity," said Kiesel-Nielf. "For all of us, it was a chance to get away from the stress of school and just concentrate on the science."
 
The project was the brainchild of Mount St. Helens Institute science education coordinator Ray Yurkewycz and Prairie High School science teacher Tom Wolverton. The two had conducted biological research on the Mount St. Helens volcano and were in awe of the “ecological stories that the mountain had to tell,” Ray wrote in a blog entry about the project. They wanted to get students up to the mountain to have the same kinds of “inspiring outdoor research experiences” that they had had using project-based learning through ecological research.
 
What started in Fall 2011 as pilot project with Prairie High School has, with a $10,000 Entrepreneur Award from Washington STEM, blossomed into a larger effort impacting students and teachers from across Southwest Washington and beyond.
In September 2012, groups from Toutle, Castle Rock, Prairie, and Wahluke high schools joined up with area scientists for overnight field trips to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. They explored the area—including a visit to ground zero of the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens—and selected field sites. Using various technologies like clinometers and LabQuest probeware, and fun approaches including a GPS scavenger hunt, the students performed a variety of forestry and ecological sampling techniques. They also dug into key concepts of field science and research ethics.
 
The project didn't stop there.
 
After returning to the classroom, the students entered the data they had collected into an online database that was accessible to all participating schools. Over the course of the year, students used the data to tackle a scientific question of their choice, test their hypotheses, and flush out their conclusions.
 
The project culminated in a spring event at Washington State University-Vancouver where students and teachers from all participating schools came together to share their results and conclusions in poster presentations.
 
The teachers played a critical role in supporting the project throughout the year. To prepare teachers for an extended field research project, Mount St. Helens staff organized a three-day teacher workshop the summer before the student trips. Through a blend of scientific investigation and pedagogical discourse, the scientists and teachers explored the mountain’s diverse micro-ecosystems, learned about the geologic events surrounding the eruption, and discussed how to set up field study sites.
 
Partnering with STEM professionals is a powerful way to provide real-world learning experiences for students and support teachers in their ongoing professional learning. This is especially critical in STEM fields, which require a depth of content expertise and are constantly evolving given research developments and technological innovations.
 
“I was hungry to do more field study and hands-on exploration,” said Kiesel-Nield who has a background in earth sciences but has been teaching biology and physical sciences at Wahluke for the past six years. “This experience is helping me get up to speed. I had the opportunity to learn myself.”
 
The project was an equally impactful experience for the students. For the 17 students from Wahluke High School, it was the first time any of them had been to the mountain. For many, it was also their first time outside of Wahluke and their first major outdoors adventure. Wahluke high school junior Saul Ramos studied the PH balance of Ryan and Meta lakes and proved his hypothesis that Ryan would have a lower PH level because it was impacted from the volcanic eruption, whereas Meta was more protected by the mountains.
 
Ramos reminisced about cooking over a small camp stove, sleeping in tents, using outdoor toilets, and eating fresh huckleberries. But as with his teacher Mr. Kiesel-Nield, working alongside real scientists stuck with him.
 
"They really love their jobs," said Ramos. "They’re so passionate about it and are so happy doing what they do. I just didn’t know there were scientists like that."

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