Connecting kids to nature through hands-on learning

Field day at Scotch Creek Wildlife Area teaches students about conservation efforts in rural Washington

The North Central Educational Service District (NCESD), with funding support from the ClimeTime Proviso, partnered with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to bring more than 60 fifth grade students from Tonasket Elementary School to the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area for a conservation field day in April 2021.

This hands-on learning opportunity was a unique way to connect students to the natural world, teach about the state-endangered Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, and empower students with new skills.

“Field trips are one of the most valuable parts of education,” explained Scott Olson from Tonasket Elementary School. “It’s amazing how kids can do centimeters and meters in the classroom, but we come out into the field and it’s new to them.”

Connecting classrooms to the natural world

Tonasket Elementary School students participated in hands-on learning experiences that connected them to a deeper understanding of sharp-tailed grouse conservation work. During their field day experience, students worked alongside scientists to collect data, engineer water retention devices, plant and identify important plant species, and paint their observations to learn how science is helping conserve at-risk species in Washington.

A series of stations helped inspire students’ interest in the natural world and explore different ways scientists manage resources to protect sharp-tailed grouse and other wildlife.

Getting to know the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse

To start the day, WDFW biologist Mike Schroeder gave students a quick introduction to sharp-tailed grouse by showing feathers and a taxidermy grouse for students to see up close. He also played mating sounds so students would know what a sharp-tailed grouse sounds like.

Male Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (left) and WDFW biologist Michael Schroeder with taxidermy sharp-tailed grouse (right).

Schroeder explained that the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area is one of the best — and only — places to find sharp-tailed grouse in Washington state. WDFW manages the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area and acquired the land primarily for the recovery of the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse with a focus of enhancement of shrubsteppe and riparian habitat.

Planting critical habitat

At the first station, students learned the importance of planting critical habitat and how sharp-tailed grouse rely on certain plants for their survival. WDFW biologists Bryan Dupont and Oscar Medina helped each student plant a water birch tree, an important species for sharp-tailed grouse. They also learned to identify plants using a dichotomous key with Julie Nelson from The Methow Beaver Project.

Every student planted a water birch tree, an important species for sharp-tailed grouse.

Understanding Beaver Dam Analogs and streams

The next station taught students the importance of Beaver Dam Analogs (BDAs), a structure created to mimic the function of a beaver dam. They learned how installing a BDA affects water retention in the surrounding habitat and helps plants survive that are important to sharp-tailed grouse habitat. Matt Young and Oly Zacherle with the Colville Confederated Tribe taught students how to use scientific equipment to measure the volume of stream water before and after a BDA was installed, giving students the opportunity to see the difference these structures make.

Students learned how to use scientific equipment to measure the volume of stream water.

In their next station, Kim Kogler with the Okanogan Conservation District explained how the natural environment can be used to create BDAs. Students then built their own BDAs using plastic bottles and natural materials like grass, rocks, and sand. They timed how long it took water to flow through a graduated cylinder before and after their “BDA” was installed.

Students built their own Beaver Dam Analogs using plastic bottles and natural materials like grass, rocks, and sand.

Connecting art and science

In the final station, students painted watercolor portraits of the surrounding shrubsteppe landscape and sharp-tailed grouse feathers. One student explained how this was his favorite station because it was “fun and calming”, and he enjoyed painting and would be able to show people what grouse feathers look like.

“When kids leave a field trip, I want them to take away the idea that what they are learning in the classroom applies to life, our world, and where they live,” said Scott Olson, Fifth Grade Teacher at Tonasket Elementary School. “It’s not just numbers — it’s the lives of grouse. It’s not just stream flow — it’s how that helps grouse live.”

Students painted watercolor portraits of the surrounding shrubsteppe landscape and sharp-tailed grouse feathers.

Using public lands as a classroom

Public lands are a great space to create educational experiences for students. We hope to continue partnering with our communities in the future to support similar field learning opportunities.

We appreciate the partners that made this opportunity possible: North Central Educational Service District, Team Naturaleza, Methow Beaver Project, Tonasket School District, The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and Okanogan Conservation District, and with funding from the ClimeTime Proviso and Washington State LASER.

Explore your public lands this summer

While school may be out for the year, it doesn’t mean that learning and exploring has to stop! Summer is a great time to get outdoors and continue science and outdoor education. We encourage families to explore their local wildlife area or get involved with a community science program.

Take learning outdoors this summer and explore a wildlife area near you.

Community science programs help teach kids powerful skills like observation, identification, data entry, and more. It also helps connect classroom learning with real-world application of knowledge. Finally, it gives kids (and adults) an opportunity to contribute meaningful information to scientists throughout the state.

Community science can be done in places as close as your backyard or balcony. Topics range from identifying and tracking bumblebees to staring at the night sky. Check out this list of community science programs throughout the state that we compiled.

Educational resources

For resources on how to engage kids and have fun together as a family, check out our at-home educational resources for themed activities you can do together at home or on a field trip. For more detailed lesson plans to use in the classroom (indoor, outdoor, or virtual), visit our Wild Washington environmental education webpage.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.