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Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center provides hands on experience for science students
Outside it’s a typical foggy, Seattle Saturday morning. But inside the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center, it’s bustling. As students settle into their seats, the conversation turns quickly from driving tests to a debate about whether Mars or the moon would be better to colonize. But it takes only a quick announcement by the teacher for everyone to turn their attention and focus on what they’re here to do.
These 12 teens gather every Saturday morning at the facility in Bellevue for the environmental science and technology practicum organized by the Pacific Science Center. Throughout the fall, the high schoolers will learn about and develop skills for fields in environmental science and beyond.
“My understanding in high school science is it’s not real unless [the kids] are participating in science,” said Siri Nelson, a supervisor of teen and family programs at the center. “We’re very focused about being outside in the field and lab, and trying out what these careers feel like,” Nelson added.
The activities vary from week to week, but they focus on gaining experience with fieldwork in the 320-acre Mercer Slough and state-of-the-art wet-lab equipment in the education center. Nelson says these are on a par with technology in a mid-level chemistry class at the UW. Sometimes they’re inside testing water samples for refined oil, other weeks they’re paddling out in canoes collecting samples from the slough.
“There are a lot of jobs coming up in environmental sciences and low-impact development,” said TJ Johansson, a 15-year-old in the practicum. “It’ll be good for people to know how to use this stuff because it means a lower impact on the Earth from humans.”
The students’ interests range from environmental science to astrobiology and beyond. Though most are too young to be more than considering what they’ll do when they’re out of high school, they all see the sacrifice of their precious Saturday mornings as an excellent chance to broaden their horizons.
“It’s about the environment in a lot of ways, but today, [for example,] is also about chemistry,” said Shannon Lengele, a practicum student who’s interested in going into physics. “So we’re learning more skills than just what the title says. I can see if I want to do it – and if I don’t I have that experience.”
Nelson said the goal is to get the kids developing their sense of potential career paths and figuring out what they need to be doing now and in the future to be on the cutting edge of environmental science.
“They’re under such competition and stress to get into a good school, (so) they don’t get as much time to stop, assess, and see where their talent and interests lie,” said Nelson. “You should focus on the right courses and good grades, but there are skills that aren’t identifiable in grades.”
Often the last part of class is dedicated to the career tie-in, typically related to the activity that week. Focusing on the education and experience needed for certain jobs, speakers from around the region – such as scientists from the University of Washington or start-ups around the area – answer questions and talk about their work.
The format of the class helps students envision a path for themselves, as well as engage with those who share their interests.
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