A Journey Of Surprises

Rivers reveal their secrets to Idaho students researching water quality through rigorous scientific inquiry

Photos and story by Suzie Boss

Squiggly blue lines cover the map of Idaho, a state with more than 2,000 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers. From the perspective of veteran science teacher Bob Beckwith, all that water means that nearly every Idaho student has easy access to a creek, a stream, or a lake. “Probably 95 percent of the state’s population lives along a watershed,” he estimates. And where there’s water, Beckwith can promise you, there’s a science project worth pursuing.

On an early winter morning, for example, Beckwith and fellow Eagle High School biology teacher Steve DeMers loaded three classes of warmly dressed sophomores and armloads of scientific gear onto a school bus and headed off on an all-day investigation of water quality along the Boise River. By the day’s end, students had made four stops to gather data between the mouth of the river and headwaters in the mountains west of Boise. They waded midstream to collect invertebrates and dipped their hands into icy currents to test ph and oxygen levels. They checked and rechecked their measurements, keeping careful track of resulting numbers for future analysis.

Despite the frosty weather and the high spirits that come with escaping the classroom, students resisted the urge to hurl snowballs. And all day long, there was no whining. Every student participating in the trip was there by choice, doing what Beckwith calls “real science.”

Since he began teaching in 1972, Beckwith has been using projects to introduce his students to the scientific method. There’s no shortage of evidence that it’s an effective strategy. Beckwith himself is a past recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in teaching secondary science. Several of his students have won regional and national honors in elite science competitions, and many have gone on to launch careers in engineering, biology, medicine, and other fields that require a deep understanding of science. Even students who aren’t destined for technical careers, Beckwith points out, gain the benefit of “learning to ask a question and figure out the answer. That’s how I define science literacy.”

On the banks of the Boise River, three girls from Eagle High interrupted their fieldwork to explain the appeal of project-based learning. “We learn so much more this way compared to reading a book,” said one. “You get to experience it yourself, so you really understand what something like turbidity means,” added another. “This applies to me,” explained the third girl. “This is a river where I might want to swim or go fishing. The quality of this water matters. It’s important. And I have the tools right here to find out whether or not it’s clean,” she said, holding up a vial of river water she was evaluating for the presence of nitrates. Although she knew there would be more analysis to be done later, back in the classroom, she had already gained one insight from taking snapshots along different parts of the river: “Upstream, away from the city, the water gets cleaner.”

photo, kids gathering specimens from the river bottom

photo, examining a screen for macro invertebrates

photo, testing water quality

photo, giving the results to the teacher

During a winter day spent collecting data along the Boise River, students in hip waders used a kick screen to gather specimens from the river bottom (at top); examined the screen for macro invertebrates; tested water quality; and, finally, reported their numbers to teacher Bob Beckwith (bottom, right, with clipboard).

Sharing Skills

Through an ambitious effort he launched several years ago, Beckwith also helps other Idaho teachers acquire the skills, equipment, and confidence they need to incorporate project-based learning into their classes. Project SITE—which stands for Students Investigating Today’s Environment—engages students and teachers across the state in projects involving scientific inquiry into water quality, noxious weeds, and other real-world concerns.

Beckwith co-directs SITE with David Redfield, dean of health and science at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa. Support for the project has come from a variety of sources, including several Idaho colleges, school-to-work partnerships, the state department of education, Idaho Rangeland Commission, and private funders such as the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.

More than 200 teachers have gone through SITE training, which immerses them in the same kind of project-based learning they will later orchestrate with their own students. The core of training is an intensive, five-day summer workshop that reminds teachers why science is best understood through active learning. Little time is spent listening to lectures or reading texts. Instead, teachers do real fieldwork, rafting the Salmon River to collect data that relate to water quality or surveying plant life to assess the spread of noxious weeds.

“It’s not lecture/read/do a canned experiment,” Beckwith says. “We might talk for short periods about things they don’t understand very well, then provide them with an experience where they can pose questions and do research to figure out the answers. So it’s a steep learning curve. We model how science works. Science is not a textbook—that’s a history book of facts that scientists have already learned by asking questions. Those facts are an important foundation,” he acknowledges, “but real science involves going out and answering new questions.”

Between Monday and Friday of a typical training week, “teachers learn everything they need to be classroom ready,” Beckwith says. Participants also come away with armloads of gear provided by SITE. “We don’t just train them and then expect them to find a way to buy their own equipment,” he says. “We give them all the stuff they need,” he says, such as test kits, digital cameras, and a manual he wrote in accessible language to guide students through nine scientifically valid field tests designed to measure water quality.

In return, teachers agree to take their students out on data-gathering projects at least three times during the school year. They also bring SITE students together to present their projects during an annual Idaho Student Showcase Day in the spring. By fulfilling their end of the bargain, teachers can earn a stipend.

Providing teachers with such extensive support means that the SITE organizers have had to devote considerable energy to writing grants and reaching out to potential funders. The program invests about $1,500 per teacher on training and supplies, Beckwith estimates. But the investment pays off, he says, by “freeing teachers to focus on teaching.” Water quality —which integrates biology, chemistry, and physics—continues to be a prime focus of fieldwork, but funding for research on weeds has led to new SITE projects in the area of life sciences. “As long as we can collect data, work as a team, and ask questions, then it’s a valid project,” Beckwith says.

To be sure, project-based learning puts high demands on the instructor. “This takes energy,” Beckwith admits at the end of a cold day spent outdoors with a busload of teenagers. But for teachers who enjoy being learners themselves, this style of teaching “helps prevent burnout,” he adds. “It lets teachers engage in questions, too. They have to know enough to help students figure out the answers. As a teacher, you have to allow students to go places even if you don’t know the answers.”

Some teachers need a little “nurturing,” Beckwith admits, to gain the confidence to launch students on challenging projects outside the confines of the classroom. “For others, this way of learning fits so well with their teaching style—it’s natural. They pick it right up.” When Beckwith explains SITE methods to teachers who already believe in active learning, “you just have to put the idea on the table and then run to get out of their way!”

photo, girl using water quality equipment

Students use scientific equipment to measure water quality indicators— not once, but three times. Later, back in the classroom, their numbers will be added to a statewide database. Their first field lesson: accuracy counts.

Pleasant Surprises

Shannon Laughlin was in her first year of teaching middle school science when she saw a flyer about Project SITE. She signed up for two weeks of workshops last summer, including a five-day raft trip along the Salmon River.

“You work your tail off,” she recalls, laughing. “You’re on the river nine hours a day, then talk more about science at night. It’s wonderful!” Although Laughlin holds degrees in both plant science and entomology, she had never done fieldwork. “This kind of hands-on training gives you a chance to prepare,” she says, “so you’re ready when it’s time to take your kids out.”

Last fall, Laughlin began introducing her students at Marsing Middle School to project-based learning. For students and teacher alike, Project SITE has been a journey of surprises. “My kids started by asking me, ‘What are we going to find out?'” Laughlin would tell them: “I don’t know. You’re the scientists.” Project SITE is worlds removed from what Laughlin calls “canned labs, where you can guess what the results should be. What’s neat about this is, you don’t know ahead of time what you’re going to learn. I like to do things where I don’t know the answers in advance.”

Laughlin’s students have been using SITE protocols to test water quality along the Snake River, which runs right through their community and is only a five-minute bus ride from the school. “They fish in this river and swim in it. The river is a part of their life. So they have a personal stake in asking: Is it clean?” That question has led them to others, such as: What affects water quality—agriculture? pollutants? animals?

Although Laughlin says SITE has opened the door to powerful learning opportunities that build science literacy, that’s not the only benefit she’s witnessed. Using field-tested SITE methods, she asked her students to break into teams and choose their own captains. “The ones they chose as captains are not necessarily the usual leaders. But these kids blew me out of the water,” Laughlin admits. “Natural leadership does not always show up in the classroom. These kids did a great job, and it gave them a chance they might not have had otherwise to demonstrate their leadership, their competence.” She enjoyed sharing that observation with her principal, who came along on the first field trip and has become an enthusiastic supporter of the project.

Power Of Teamwork

Beckwith knows from experience that teamwork is a valuable component of SITE projects. “The tasks are such that one person can’t do it alone,” he explains. “Students have to work in teams, and team members have to depend on each other.” Back in the classroom, teams share test results as part of their quality assurance. “If the teams get similar results,” he explains, “they know they’re on target.” Because data are entered into a SITE database that students all over the state can access for research, accuracy is critical.

What’s more, the team approach to research allows all learners to contribute, no matter how diverse their skill levels or how different their learning styles. “Out in the field, they all can be active participants,” Beckwith says. “Nobody’s sitting on the bench. When they come back into the classroom, they can share their data. Every number offers some valuable information.

David Redfield, a professor of chemistry at Northwest Nazarene University in addition to being co-director of SITE, is convinced that such projects “are not just for the elite students. It’s amazing to see kids who are not particularly strong in traditional classroom settings step up and take on a leadership role on a team. They all can use their strengths.

At the university, teamwork skills are valued, Redfield notes. The depth of science literacy that SITE fosters should help prepare students for the rigor of college-level work. “By the time they reach the university, we should be seeing students who are further along as scientists,” he predicts.

SITE not only introduces students to the process of scientific inquiry, Redfield says, but also gives them enough practice in fieldwork so they can start to become confident researchers. “It’s important for them to go out at least three times during the school year to gather data,” he explains. “The first time they do the tests, it feels like a lab exercise. They’re just learning how to use the equipment, take the measurements. But by going into the real world to gather data, then returning to the classroom to analyze results, they can start to look for patterns. They ask questions to figure out why they got the results they did. It becomes a real experience—the numbers have relevance.”

As students repeat the data-gathering process, “the repetition builds their skills,” Redfield says. “If the data seem off, they can take a close look at how they’re collecting samples. That’s a problem-solving exercise right there—to figure out how to correct their methods in the field. They start to know enough to question results if the numbers seem flawed or wrong. That takes confidence.” As students repeat the cycle of posing a hypothesis, gathering data, and analyzing results, “it takes them deeper and deeper into understanding what’s happening, and why,” Redfield says. “When they’re confident about their numbers, then they can move on to ask: What are these numbers telling us? Why did the oxygen go down? What else changed? Is there a relationship, a pattern?”

Beckwith also takes a long-term view of where Project SITE might lead. “Once they learn to use this model, students should be able to apply scientific inquiry to questions of their own. There should be some students in every class who get really excited, really curious. They can take off on their own investigations,” he says.

He’s seen it happen. One of his former students became curious about Mars, and went on to design an experiment that won a national competition sponsored by NASA. Another girl had to miss some class time because her family was traveling to India. She packed along a water quality kit and tested samples of the Ganges and other rivers, which she compared to the water quality of Idaho rivers.

Recently, Beckwith received an e-mail from a student, now a junior in college, asking for a letter of reference for graduate school applications. It was in his biology class, doing Project SITE, that she did her first fieldwork and became inspired to become a scientist. Beckwith will know when project-based learning really takes off in Idaho and transforms the culture of the classroom, “because we’ll be flooded with letters like that one. It’s far better than any test score,” he says, “for measuring success.”

What’s in SITE?

Teachers currently involved in Project SITE recently came together for an all-day workshop to share information about their classroom activities. Their experiences show that project-based teaching methods can work in a variety of settings and appeal to a wide range of learners. Among the examples:

At Kuna High School, students can start participating in SITE activities as freshmen, in Ken Lewis‘s ninth-grade biology class. “We focus on ecology, and use SITE to explore biotic indicators like macro invertebrates. Working in groups, they come up with some great hypotheses,” he says. Later, when students take chemistry and physics, they use SITE inquiry methods again. “I see a bump in their understanding,” says teacher Mike Weidenfeld. “They have better techniques, deeper understanding.” In chemistry, for example, he uses SITE “as a springboard.” Collecting water samples “gets kids to ask questions like, Why is ph important?”

Roy Gasparotti teaches a yearlong projects class for seventh-graders at New Plymouth Middle School and says SITE “fits right in. Interdisciplinary projects are part of our curriculum.” He asks students to assess whether water samples “are good or bad. Then they develop PowerPoint presentations with their data. It’s more fun for kids to work with their own numbers, to graph data they have collected. It’s more meaningful to them.” Fellow teacher Craig Mefford works with the same students on writing their hypotheses and making carefully worded observations.

Will Zollman, who teaches agricultural science at Midvale Junior-Senior High, took a SITE training session on weeds last summer, along with his superintendent and a school board member. So district support for project-based learning is a given. “This has added to my teaching,” he says. “It’s made me look at weeds in a different way—how do they affect rangeland? What can we do about them?” Those are questions he hopes to have his students exploring through fieldwork this spring.

Steve DeMers, who teaches at Eagle High School, has been involved with SITE for three years. “I want to take it a step further,” he says, to get students to consider deeper questions after they have gathered data. He has students use their test results to create graphs with Excel software. “Then I ask them to look for trends. What should a graph look like? Can they explain what’s happening, and why? I’m trying to get them to recognize patterns.”

John Pedersen, a middle school teacher in Nampa, took a SITE workshop early in his teaching career and has been using project-based methods ever since. This year, students are doing water and weather studies. “One student trains the next to enter data,” he explains.

Chad Anzen at Fruitland High School is starting to see students who have had the benefit of project-based learning as early as middle school. “We have a middle school teacher who does SITE, and I’m getting those kids now in high school. They take off so much faster. They act like teachers themselves,” he says, “helping their classmates understand how to do field tests.” By the time the same students take advanced biology, he adds, “they’re ready to go to the step of analyzing. It’s exciting.”

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