Students in Heather Miller's Scientific Inquiry class aren't just learning how to think like scientists. They also are getting closer to the natural world and the history of Oregon.
As part of a year-long "Trailside Ecology" project, the Irrigon High School class will be helping to create the Columbia River Heritage Trail, a 30-mile recreational path that will follow the shore of the Columbia River in Morrow County.
Although Morrow County planners developed the idea in 2000, only some parts of the route are complete. The county will eventually pave trail and include interpretive signs that point out historical sites of interest, such as the spot where Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery camped out with local American Indians.
Miller's students will help by learning about the ecosystem along sections of the trail and then creating presentation products such as brochures.
"I would love it if they created and installed a professional-looking interpretive sign with their words and pictures," she said.
One of the project's goals is to encourage students to take ownership of the local ecosystem. When students learn about the health of the plants and animals, and then initiate plant restoration projects when needed, Miller said, they will feel more of a responsibility for the land and the trail.
The first morning of the project, the class walked down to the river and broke up into teams. Equipped with digital cameras, stakes, marking tape and field guides to plant and animals of the Pacific Northwest, they staked out plots of land and went to work. Their task was to complete a survey of the staked area, including plants, animals and insects.
Amber Cruz, 16, and Jessica Torres, also 16, measured the entrance to an underground burrow with a yard stick while their teammates, Benito Cabral, 17, and Jonny Cabral, 15, looked on. They carefully snapped a picture of the burrow with a cell phone; the memory on their camera, they said, was full. After they measured the hole, they consulted their printed assignments.
"OK, weather data: cloud cover, wind direction, speed ...," read Torres. One of her teammates pointed out the sky was clear, and another said there didn't seem to be any wind.
Later, they hunched over their field guides, looking for identifications for a yellow-flowered shrub, a cactus and a beetle they had captured in a small glass cup.
"It's pretty cool watching the birds fly," said Benito Cabral, pointing at some gulls playing in the air nearby. "Hey - take a picture of the birds," he called to the Amber, the team's photographer.
Cruz aimed the cell phone at the gulls and went back to her field guide.
Many of her students, Miller said, have had little exposure to plant and animal identification. When they look at the shrubs and grasses near the trail, all they see are weeds.
"I want them to have a connection to the natural world," she said, "and teach them the fundamentals of science while they're at it."