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Field trip offers hands-on learning

by: PHOTO BY STEVE ST. AMAND - (From left) Clackamas Web Academy students Samuel Georgiyev and Max Skvortsov find a western tree frog egg sac in the wetlands at Three Creeks Natural area, just north of an industrial area that includes McFarlane's Bark.  The weather gods smiled on the 17 students in Terri Gibson’s Clackamas Web Academy science class on March 12, as they set off for a field trip to the Three-Creeks Natural Area, just behind the North Clackamas Aquatic Center.

Because the day was sunny and warm, walking to the natural area from the school, located on the third floor of 24-Hour Fitness on Sunnybrook Boulevard, was a breeze.

Before the students left for the natural area, they listened to a classroom presentation from Susan Barnes, regional conservation biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Susan is going to have them survey amphibian egg masses, looking especially for red-legged frogs, which are on the sensitive-species list in Oregon. She is teaching them how to identify the different stages of egg development,” Gibson said.

A huge plus for the students, ages 13 through 18, is that they “have full classroom instruction from a professional, and then they immediately go out into the field. The combination of classroom and hands-on completes the science experience,” she said.

“The school has partnered with Water Environment Services, and WES has brought us all these amazing experiences at no cost to us. They have been our bridge between the classroom and real life. Our students get to work in the science field alongside professionals,” Gibson said.

Amphibians in spotlight

This term the students have focused on amphibians, and last term WES brought a Portland State University professor and an assistant into the CWA classroom to work on a bio-assessment survey.

“The students took macro-invertebrate samples, collecting bugs and bug larvae out of the creeks in order to do a water-quality assessment,” Gibson said, adding that the group did one survey in creeks near Mount Hood, and the other at the Three-Creeks Natural Area.

“Three-Creeks is right down the street, and it is a place we can go to look at what life was like before we started building here. It is a slice of natural habitat, and it is in our backyard. It is a learning space for us, an extension of our classroom,” Gibson said.

“We are learning to identify the egg masses from frogs, toads, newts and salamanders, and we are trying to compare and contrast the species that are on the sensitive list,” said Kira Corbett, 13.

These amphibians are “really important for our ecosystem and for healthy water chemistry and they help control insects,” she added.

The field trip to Three-Creeks is educational, she said, because “hands-on experiences help people think cautiously about the environment around us. Where the school is now used to be a wetland, so habitats were removed; it is important to maintain the habitats we still have.”

Spencer Rice, 15, said he started going to the Three-Creeks area when he was younger, and recalls following the life cycles of frogs from eggs to tadpoles and beyond.

It is important to preserve natural spaces, he said, so that “people see that we do have wildlife areas that need more attention brought to them, to help the ecosystems.”

Rice enjoys the outdoors and studying biology, and plans to pursue some kind of medical field in college.

Survey a first in county

Barnes noted this is the first time a concerted effort to find amphibians has taken place in Clackamas County, and “it is important because amphibians are great responders to their environment. Our native amphibians need our help, and we all play a role in conservation at some level.”

She said there are many benefits in engaging students and other local citizens in this type of survey, because “it opens our eyes to these amazing creatures around us and what we could or perhaps should be doing differently to improve the health of our environment, not just for the frogs and salamanders, but for us, too.”

As the field trip came an end, Barnes said the students “explored one of the WES wetland mitigation sites and found hundreds of Pacific tree-frog egg masses, most close to hatching. We also found a few long-toed salamander eggs. To top it off, we found several red-legged frog egg masses, which were definitely the highlight as they are on Oregon's state sensitive species list and a priority species in the Oregon Conservation Strategy.”

“It is extremely important that young people understand about water quality. They will grow up and realize that water is our most valued resource; all life depends on water,” said Gari Johnson, watershed health education program coordinator for Clackamas County WES.

“Our main objective at WES is water quality and to protect public health and the environment. Our whole objective with students is to get the kids out into the field to learn about water quality, so they can touch it, see it and feel it,” she said.

“And the beauty of getting them out there is they are engaged, focused and curious. They can ask questions, and it is so helpful to have our experts right there to answer those questions,” Johnson said, noting that among WES’s partners are the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Friends of Trees, SOLVE and other nonprofits.

WES works with many schools in the North Clackamas area, Johnson said, but the field trip with the Web Academy students came about because the ODFW was conducting a professional amphibian survey on WES property at the Three-Creeks Natural Area.

“We turned it into an educational opportunity. The Clackamas Web Academy was chosen because the students could walk there. It is important to us to connect people with the water in their community,” Johnson said.

She recommended that anyone interested in watershed health visit riverhealth.org, and click on the Get Involved site.

Clackamas Web Academy

Gibson describes the Web Academy as a hybrid school, with online classes, live classroom opportunities and on-site tutoring opportunities.

“We get a lot of students who are home-schooled, and this opens up a wider range for them. We serve all kinds of kids who need to work or parent or who have medical issues and are unable to attend a traditional school,” Gibson said.

Clackamas Web Academy is a free public charter school in the North Clackamas School District. It provides instruction to 465 students in grades one through 12. At the high school level, CWA offers students the opportunity to volunteer in the community, complete an internship, and earn college credits, while earning a North Clackamas School District diploma.

For more information about Clackamas Web Academy, visit clackamaswebacademy.org.