Riverkeepers lead field trips for Metzger Elementary students at Dirksen Nature Park

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Haley Hanblin reaches down into the waters of Summer Creek, looking for creatures during a Tualatin Riverkeepers-sponsored field trip at Dirksen Nature Park.Fifth-graders from Metzger Elementary School avidly listen while Tualatin Riverkeeper Education Coordinator Isabel LaCourse talks to them about the importance of noticing the natural world around them. She explains to the students that they’ll be looking in Dirksen Nature Park’s Summer Creek for aquatic macro invertebrates. In other words, semi-large water animals without spines. Whew. Even the adults are learning on this field trip.

For four Fridays in April and May, volunteers from Tualatin Riverkeepers team up with Metzger Elementary at Dirksen Nature Park to learn about natural science hands-on.

“It’s a chance to know where they’re from and where they’re living,” LaCourse says. “When you get a kid to notice something a quarter-inch-long by a 16th-inch-wide — when are they ever being that focused?”

The fifth-graders’ excitement for the day’s activities is clear. They hustle around the creek, carefully looking under rocks and sifting through the water with nets. When they find animals like snails, clams or crawfish, they place them in bins for future discussion. After about 20 minutes, this station ends, and they hurry off to explore another area of the park.

“It’s hands-on. It’s a day out in something natural. There’s no concrete, no blacktop, and it’s here for generations,” says Sean Finnerty, who’s volunteered with the Riverkeepers for more than six years.

Dirksen Nature Park, which encompasses 48 acres of land near Fowler Middle School, is complete with wetlands, forests and creeks ready for exploring. The land was acquired by the city through a 2010 bond measure, and since then the Tualatin Riverkeepers have used the property for educational programs. Among those are summer day camps that explore much of what the Metzger students learn on their field trips and more.

As the groups of students alternate between the stations volunteers have prepared, they continue to learn about the ecosystems around them. A big topic of the day is about the “riparian zone,” — the trees on either side of a stream that reduce flooding and prevent runoff. Within the zone, students are taught the difference between native, non-native and invasive species, and volunteers show them examples of each.

“This area is so dramatically diverse,” says Bonny Chown, who’s been a Riverkeepers volunteer for three years. “This property is here, and it’s going to be here. If they can come out here every year, they’re bonding with it and creating a sense of ownership.”

As some of the students parade through the woods on a scavenger hunt, volunteer Bill Kaltenthaler talks to them about the wetland they’re walking through and the different trees that make up the forest. When they arrive at a fallen tree, the group stands up on it and looks around before spontaneously belting out “We Are The Champions.”

“While you’re standing there, tell me about why that tree fell down,” Kaltenthaler says, making use of a moment that previously seemed un-teachable.

Once back on solid ground, a boy came up to Kaltenthaler holding a plant he found.

“Can I eat it?” he asks.

“You can eat anything once,” Kaltenthaler responds with a laugh before demonstrating an owl hoot for the group. Within seconds, an alternating high-pitched “hoo, hoo, hu, hoooo” fills the quiet forest, as students practice for a time when an owl might be around to respond.

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