Students from Salcha School are getting out of the classroom and into the field for a 10-year science project that calls for the kids to research the impact that construction of the Alaska Railroad bridge over the Tanana River will have on the Piledriver Slough.
Salcha School Principal Annie Keep-Barnes is handing out little plastic water-sample bottles and giving instructions to about a dozen fourth-graders along the muddy banks of the Piledriver Slough that’s serving as an outdoor classroom.
“Start down there, with turbidity (testing),” Keep-Barnes tells one group.
Then, turning to another, she says, “What I want you guys to do while you’re waiting for your turn is we have the dissolved oxygen (testing), the pH (testing), and the turbidity level. You haven’t done any of that. Go back and start looking at the habitat. So flip back to the beginning of your book.”
Nine-year-old Kenna Marchessault (“MAR-sha-sow”) says she’d much rather be out taking water samples and conducting experiments here than be sitting in her classroom reading a science text and listening to her teacher lecture.
“I just kind of like doing science when you get to experiments,” Kenna says. “Not really the talking about all the stuff. I like doing the experiments.”
Kenna explains that it’s important to ensure that each sample is agitated properly to get an accurate reading. A minute later, classmate Gentry Johnson says it appears the water contains somewhere between 2 and 3 parts per million of dissolved oxygen.
“It would probably be like 3 (parts per million), or 2 – in the middle,” Gentry says.
A few feet away Mason Wolverton is helping a couple of pals make observations on plant and animal habitat along the streambanks and in the water.
“We’re taking the habitat assessment. That’s where we have all these questions in our little notebooks, and we’ve got to answer them,” Mason says. “And Jaden and Tyler need some help with them, so I’m helping ’em.”
The students all appear very engaged, very interested, taking their jobs as young scientists very seriously.
That’s the point of the long-term science project that the school is conducting, with the help of the Tanana Valley Watershed Association.
Susan Port is the association’s primary field technician for the project.
“They’re really taking pride in this project,” Port says, “and they’re talking about it with their friends and their relatives. And they so excited to come out here.”
The project calls for Salcha students to get out to the slough about 30 miles south of Fairbanks every spring and fall over 10 years to determine the impact of a levee that the railroad built as part of the bridge project. The levee cuts off the flow of water from the Tanana into the slough, which will keep floodwaters from pouring in every breakup season. That flooding usually eliminates most of the beaver dams along the slough and improves the flow of water, which in turn improves fish habitat.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game wants to know how fish populations in the slough will be affected if the beaver dams are no longer broken up by the flooding.
The Salcha students will help Fish and Game answer that question with the data they collect, including water quality, especially sediment and pH balance, habitat assessment; and identifying the number of types of fish in the slough.
The school is partnering with the Tanana Valley Watershed Association and Alaska Railroad.
Jewelz Nutter is the association’s executive director. She says the instruction given during the field trips is age-appropriate – more complex tasks are assigned to the older students, less-complex for the younger kids.
“The fifth-graders were just reciting the difference between acids and bases, and what’s an acid, what’s a base,” Nutter says. “The pH of the water should be 7 (neutral) – if it’s higher or lower, what are the impacts?
“Whereas, the kindergartners are looking at the color – ‘Oh, it turned pink! Oh, it turned blue!’”
The field trip earlier this month was the third so far. Nutter says the project will enable the students to add to what they learned the year before, and to gain more knowledge progressively throughout their years at the school.
“So as they grow and continue on in their education, they’ll become more and more intuitive, and adapt to be able to explain what’s going on,” she says.