Learning from the Landscape
Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) outdoor learning at the Sagebrush Flats Wildlife Area Bridgeport Unit.
In early April, students from Waterville and Bridgeport elementary schools explored science, engineering, math, and art on the Bridgeport Unit as part of the North Central Educational Service District’s (NCESD) STEAM in the Field collaborative with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Methow Beaver Project, Douglas County Public Utility District (PUD), and Foster Creek Conservation District.
A light spring rain trickled down from the top of a pop-up tent canopy as a lively group of students huddled underneath, gathered to listen about the land’s history. Surrounding them, light green hills of the Bridgeport Unit to showcase shrubsteppe habitat with native bunchgrasses and blossoming arrowleaf balsamroot. But the land didn’t always look this way. As the rain continues to fall, students listen as local wheat farmer Wade Troutman shares his historical knowledge of the area.
“You’re all in 5th grade?” Troutman asked. “I went to 5th grade at Bridgeport Elementary, too. Though I didn’t think much of the 5th grade,” Troutman told the kids with a grin.
Troutman went on to tell the students how his family raised wheat, canola, and sunflower in Bridgeport. He described how farming practices common in the early 20th century caused Washington’s own Dust Bowl, forcing Bridgeport farmers and their families to leave in the 1930s.
“Now it’s time to restore the land. It’s time to bring the wildlife back,” Troutman said.
Just south of Bridgeport in North Central Washington, the Bridgeport Unit has provided important habitat for the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus). But in 2020, the Pearl Hill Fire burned almost 10,000 acres of shrubsteppe habitat in WDFW wildlife areas. Observers described the burned area as an “environment…likened to that of Mordor.” The lost habitat also included important water birch trees previously planted to provide sharp-tailed grouse habitat.
Enhancing the landscape to support wildlife
Organized by the North Central Educational Service District’s science program, students were at the Bridgeport Unit to answer the question, “How can enhancements to the landscape support sharp-tailed grouse?” To investigate this answer, students rotated through five stations and worked with subject-matter experts to explore science, engineering, and art.
1. Restoring native plants
At the first station, WDFW natural resource technicians and staff from the Methow Beaver Project discussed with students the four components of habitat (food, water, shelter, space). Students learned that a fire burned much of the grouse habitat, so it must be re-planted to support grouse. Afterward, students could choose a tool and help staff create grouse habitat by planting snow buckwheat, sagebrush, fleabane, and bitterbrush.
2. Observing and identifying wildlife and trees
Next, students searched through the brush and learned how to identify common mammal skulls with WDFW and Douglas County PUD staff. They investigated differences in herbivore, omnivore, and carnivore teeth and even found some scat! Afterward, students hiked up to the water birch plantation that burned in 2020, and learned that water birch trees are important for grouse habitat because they provide shelter and food. Finally, they observed differences in the trees and identified trees that had died in the fire, and trees that were still living.
3. Testing the soil
Students were encouraged to observe the landscape and share what they noticed. They answered questions like, “Are there a lot of trees?” and, “ What is the main type of plant you see?”
In the soil testing station, students had to think about why the landscape had few trees. They were given pipettes and test tubes and worked with two NCESD staff members to test the nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and pH levels of the soil. Students found the soils were low in nitrogen, which is important for producing large, leafy plants like trees.
4. Painting the Earth’s spheres
In the art station, the K-12 Waterville art teacher asked students to think about the different spheres of Earth: the atmosphere, biosphere, geosphere, and hydrosphere. Students discussed what these different spheres mean and then went on a short hike to explore some of the spheres in person. After returning, they used watercolor paints to illustrate the different spheres in front of them at the West Foster Creek Wildlife Area Unit.
5. Investigating river erosion
Staff from the Foster Creek Conservation District took students on a short hike along Foster Creek to investigate erosion along the banks. Students learned about beavers and how dams can help prevent erosion and build habitat for birds like the sharp-tailed grouse. Students then got to make their own model of a beaver dam along the creek.
The Next Generation of Conservation Scientists
Taught by subject-matter experts, this program is unique in that it focuses student learning on solving complex, real-world natural resources issues. Students had the opportunity to participate in problem solving and explore potential careers in STEAM fields. This type of outdoor, experiential learning can provide students with the skills and experiences to solve today’s, and tomorrow’s complex challenges.
This is the second year STEAM in the Field was offered to students in the NCESD region. Last year’s pilot program featured students from Tonasket Elementary on the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area. Tonasket students attended STEAM in the Field this year as well.
This exciting outdoor learning opportunity is made possible through the ClimeTime legislative proviso that provides funding for teachers to explore climate science and anthropogenic climate change impacts on our world and then share their learning with their students. Additionally, the program depends on the volunteers and partners who showed up to engage students in real-world STEAM learning.
WDFW manages the Bridgeport Unit with funding from Bonneville Power Administration.