by Victoria Lewis
Spawned out chinook salmon, brown , spotted and beak-nosed lie dead in the shallow water near the banks of the Salmon River in the Wildwood Recreation Area at the foot of Mount Hood.
The smell of rotting fish is sharp and pervasive, but Jill Semlick’s Pauling Academy ecology students ignore the odor. They are busy yanking off their shoes and snapping the clips of their chest waders. The bridge upstream is under construction and the high school students must ford the cold, fast-moving river to reach their research sites on the other side.
Once there, small groups, each accompanied by a mentor scientist, head for a different part of the forest. Some will estimate the age of the forest by taking conifer core samples and measuring tree height, while others will search for lichens and truffles. One group will use Global Positioning Satellite mapping devices and topological maps to establish a grid and locate likely spots they can place non-lethal live traps baited with peanut butter and seed balls in the spring.
All this to collect data on a small, nocturnal, arboreal rodent with big eyes and soft fur that has been a research project for the last four years in Semlick’s ecology classes.
Brown on top and light underneath with long whiskers and a flat tail, the Northern Flying Squirrel doesn’t really fly, it stretches out the lateral skin between its front and back legs and glides. The squirrel isn’t endangered but is prey to the spotted owl, the northwest icon that was responsible in part for the Northwest Forest Plan in the 1990’s that protects old growth habitat. According to Todd Wilson, a US Forest Service wildlife biologist and Northern Flying Squirrel expert, understanding the squirrel’s habitat needs are critical to the recovery of spotted owls and their habitat and the squirrel may be a key species for measuring the ultimate success of the plan.
Not only are they important as prey, Northern Flying Squirrels are a keystone species providing a vital link in forest health. Northern Flying Squirrels eat the underground fruit of fungi, truffles, and carry and redistribute the fungi spores in their scat. The fungal root invades the roots of conifers which causes an inflammatory response. As the fungi get sugar from the conifer roots they increase the surface area of the conifer root, acting as “mini” roots that allow the tree to take in more nutrients and water. Because of their wide movements the squirrels may be the best disseminators of these fungal spores which are essential to many of the conifers of the Pacific Northwest.
Last year Semlick’s students discovered truffles, that while they were well known to mushroom experts, hadn’t been found before in progression from very immature to way over-mature. Adrian Beyerle, president of the Portland Chapter of the Northwest Truffling Society took the truffles to Oregon State University for identification and now they are on display in the Society’s permanent collection at OSU.
The students’ attempts to learn what type of forest supports the squirrel, old growth coniferous forest over a younger mixed forest, takes them on overnight trapping expeditions. In recent years students have caught and released a number of Northern Flying Squirrels in the Boulder Ridge and Cottonwood areas of Wildwood. They have also accidently trapped a few skunks and been sprayed as they opened the traps to release them.
While at this time their data is more qualitative than quantitative, each year the students share their research with forest management specialists. According to Tim Delano, Community Outreach Educator at the Hopkins Demonstration Forest, wildlife biologists interested in the Wildwood area were surprised and pleased that Northern Flying Squirrels were present on the site. Reinforcing the importance of the students’ research Wilson says, “Each study adds a bit more understanding about the universal factors important to high quality squirrel habitat.”
Guidance for the project is provided by Wolftree Inc., a non-profit science education organization that provides mentor scientists, state-of-the-art equipment, and training. Their goal is to improve science literacy in schools, especially in low income communities and schools with a large population of at-risk students like Pauling Academy.
Wildwood is only 40 miles from the Marshall High School campus that Pauling Academy shares with two other small schools, but most of Semlick’s students don’t spend much time in the outdoors. For many Pauling students weekends and summers are spent in front of the TV, babysitting younger relatives, or working at fast food restaurants. Their families don’t take them hiking or camping in the woods. If it weren’t for Semlick’s class many would never find a salamander under a skunk cabbage leaf or hear the rush of a wild river instead of the drone of the freeway.
Sara Callies, a biology teacher at Benson High School, was a Wolftree staff member when she met Semlick. “Some teachers use Wolftree resources as a stand-alone field trip , just for fun”, says Callies. “But Jill is committed to inquiry based, hands-on learning.” When she decided on a career in education Callies requested Semlick as her mentor teacher for her student teaching experience. “I loved her creative and engaging approach to working with a diverse population”, says Callies. “She has such a huge amount of energy and ideas and is committed to making science relevant, accessible and interesting to all her kids.”
Semlick lives with her husband and two daughters on a farm near Corbett with a big garden and horses. But she grew up in a neighborhood very similar to the economically depressed blue-collar Lents area where she now teaches.
In his poem Lents District award winning Portland poet Matthew Dickman, who grew up in Lents, writes of his old neighborhood,
Whenever I return a fight breaks out
in the park, someone buys a lottery ticket,
steals a bottle of vodka, lights
a cigarette underneath the overpass.
205 rips the neighborhood in half
the way the Willamette rips the city in half.
Semlick is well aware of the issues facing students of poverty: drugs, hopelessness, violence, abuse, and homelessness. “I know how lucky I am that I no longer have to call that home”, she says. “I also know that environment teaches you to be grateful, resilient, hard-working and hard-as-nails.”
The boulders on the bottom of the Salmon River are mossy and slick. Toward the center the water is thigh-deep and the current pulls hard. There is a yellow nylon rope strung across the river that the students grasp tightly to keep their balance as they make their way across but Semlick notices one student hesitating on the bank. The rope is not enough security for him and when she offers to cross with him he gladly accepts. She knows a helping hand at the right time can make a big difference.
Semlick credits caring teachers for giving her the encouragement she needed to change her life. “I had a few teachers that showed me the way out”, she says. “They opened doors for me that my parents and peers could not. Because someone connected with me, and my best friend growing up, we went on to college.”
She became a high school biology and ecology teacher and though she did hands-on activities and field trips she describes herself as a traditional, textbook teacher. She had just turned forty when she got a student teacher that challenged her methods. “He was an ornithologist from Alaska”, she says. “‘Semlick,’ he’d say, ‘You’re teaching words, jargon. Get outside your box.’” For him science was an adventure, messy and unpredictable. The students responded to his openness, his willingness to take chances, to make mistakes, to be imperfect. “I saw it in their faces”, she says. “The wonder, the smiling, the laughing. They were coming in for help on their own time, doing their homework.”
She knew she had to let the students see her as more than a teacher. “You have to let them see you learn”, she says. “See you thinking out loud. Instead of the idea of the teacher as someone who knows everything, the idea is let’s learn together.” She also knew she had to get them involved in real world research, out in the field, but some of her students were apprehensive about leaving campus. Many had never been out of their neighborhood and though they would sign up for field trips they would be absent the day of the trip. She worked hard to convince them to leave the school grounds and she wasn’t above bribery. “I would bring bags of granola bars to pass out on the bus”, she says. “I always talk the bus driver into stopping at Joe’s in Estacada on the way to Wildwood and they run inside for donuts”.
She says getting out into the field and meeting the mentor scientists gives students a reason to “latch onto the project.” They start paying attention in class because they want to look knowledgeable in the field. “Once our kids realize the scope of what is out beyond the borders of our neighborhood, that’s empowering”, she says.
In seventh grade a teacher told Courtney Abell, a senior in Semlick’s class, she would be more likely to drop out of school than graduate. “At that point in time I believed him and just gave up”, she says. Abell went to four different schools her freshman year. “Returning to the same school a second year was new to me. Ms Semlick gave me hope when I had none and she believed in me when nobody else did. The amount of confidence she had in me by the end of the year matched the lack of self confidence I possessed in myself for almost half my life.”
Abell, a senior who works 35 hours a week at a Subway sandwich shop, says Semlick is different from other teachers. “She’s fun, quirky, unbelievably persistent, and dedicated. She thinks like a kid, she has the energy of a fifteen-year-old.”
Her junior year Abell was very involved in the squirrel project. Besides learning the rigors of scientific investigation she overcame her fear of public speaking when Semlick convinced her to make presentations about the project to groups of adults. “Ms Semlick talked me into it”, she says. “She told me, ‘You’ve got to do this, you are so good’. Ms Semlick handed it over to us, we took control. She was so nervous, but she was astonished how well we did.”
The students presented at a Place-Based Education workshop for over 65 educators from around the Pacific Northwest in The Dalles last year. A basic tenant of Place-Based education is that students connect what they are learning to the real world. Teachers who incorporate it into their curriculum seek to do more than prepare students to take their place in the world as workers and consumers. They teach them about the cause and effect of human actions and encourage them to become stewards of the natural world.
Semlick’s students were invited to speak at the workshop by Lewis and Clark professor of Teacher Education Gregory Smith, the co-editor of Placed-Based Education in the Global Age: Local Diversity. The book emphasizes how important is that children and youth understand and question the forces that shape places and learn to become native to their place.
According to Smith, Semlick’s program is a good model of Place-Based Education because students engaging in inquiry gain a sense of empowerment. “It gives kids the chance to believe they can make a difference”, he says.
“Most teachers take control”, says Abell. “They don’t let the kids do it. We get so much practice, how to do research. She gives us so much time. When we get there we know what to do.”
Semlick’s students are confident of their abilities in the field, whether they are identifying truffles, locating tree cavities that may serve as squirrel nests, or choosing the best location to place traps. On the field trip to Wildwood this fall Kelvin Weesner, 18, and his group climbed Boulder Ridge where they mapped out three new trapping sites using a compass to establish grid coordinates. Weesner says the Northern Flying Squirrel project has changed his attitude about school.
“School used to mean sitting in a desk all day and reading and reciting”, he says “Now at least for some portion of the day I can look forward to a more engaging, even fun way of learning. It is infinitely more interesting to perform an experiment or activity for ourselves, than to say, read about it in a book. This class made me look forward to coming to school for something more than seeing my friends”
Weesner has grown into an articulate and engaging public speaker by presenting at such events as the Urban Ecology and Conservation Symposium held at PSU last year. The night before a presentation he reviews facts and statistics. Then when he stands in front of a group to present he reads the crowd. “I never plan out word for word what I will say because every group has its own dynamic . When I get up to speak I look for a signal in the way people shift as you talk or where they are looking. Once I see this I know what tone to take.”
Like Weesner, Semlick jumps at the chance to spend time in the field learning from scientists. Last summer she shadowed a spotted owl researcher and helped with moth and caterpillar research in Central Oregon . Dr. Kari O’Connell, Project Coordinator of the Oregon Natural Resources Education Program at the College of Forestry at OSU, helped Semlick become part of Research Experience for Teachers, a program which matches teachers with scientists for field data collection and independent research in the summer.
“Jill is unique in her willingness to try new things with her students and her enthusiasm about her own learning. She is good at making partnerships and finding resources to make these ideas reality”, says O’Connell
Semlick has obtained grants from Oregon Forest Resources Institute, Jordan Fundamentals, and many others. Finding money for busses for field trips and overnight trapping is a constant struggle but Semlick is pragmatic, she doesn’t try to solve it all at once. “I’ll get some money somehow”, she says of an upcoming field trip. “Its like getting across the river, just get to the next rock.”
Semlick is undaunted by the extra work of locating funding sources because she is excited by the changes she sees in her students. “I work very long hours after school on the project because the work counts, and it grows and stretches kids in all the right ways”, she says. Through it her students gain a sense of place and purpose. “They definitely realize that being able to access open wild space is a right not a privilege.”