Mercer Slough's Environmental Pathways program lets middle schoolers muck around

Environmental Pathways students Frances and Victoria measure out water for a soil permeation test. - Daniel Nash
Environmental Pathways students Frances and Victoria measure out water for a soil permeation test.
— image credit: Daniel Nash

On a recent Thursday a group of middle school students were examining dirt — and they couldn’t have been more thrilled. As they were dropped off at the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center, instructor Jackie Wilson had them dig up soil and plant samples while they waited for their peers to arrive.

Off to the lab, the kids immediately crowded a line of microscopes opposite the entrance to the room. After they had examined their own samples a while, Wilson sets up a video projection microscope in front of a screen, and called students to come over with their samples.

Larger than life in front of the classroom, the black and brown stuff was nearly unrecognizable from its everyday form, each individual particle’s shape was a distinguishable, separate thing from its typical illusory fluid appearance. Several students gasped as a mite — in reality, no larger than a speck of dust — darted past the camera’s view.

One girl, Victoria, said how it would be cool to look at paramecia, like she had studied in her science class. Her sample went under the microscope next, a green nub the group had difficulty identifying as plant or insect. Wilson pointed out the hairs growing out of the sample’s surface that seemed to be the trichomes of a plant. Finally, they looked at a molted snake skin and sedimentary dirt before the last members of the group arrived.

“Microscope skills are really, really useful in a lab setting,” Wilson said as she invited them to their seats for the next warm-up exercise: a reading of an environmental news article on wetland mitigation.

This was the third week of the eight-week Environmental Pathways after school program, educating middle schoolers in environmental science. The pilot was created by the Pacific Science Center, which operates facilities on the city-owned park, as a scaled-down version of the existing high school Environmental Science and Technology Practicum. The goal of both programs is to introduce students to the potential of careers in environmental science.

“You can mention these careers in a classroom setting,” said practicum instructor Siri Nelson, who co-developed the program curricula with Wilson. “But it means so much more when you see what they involve firsthand.”

After Wilson finished reading the week’s news article and took students’ thoughts, she told them they would be changing their focus of study. In the first two weeks, they studied energy and built solar cars, an activity students unanimously agreed had been their favorite activity so far. On this particular day they would begin work on wetland ecology, gearing up and trekking out into the park to take samples for lab analysis during their next session.

Soon the group was out in the (park) wilds, armed with soil corers, probe meters, permeation tubes and plant charts to get their hands dirty in wetland delineation — in loose terms, the identification of wetland environments.

“It sounds like you’re playing with soil — and you kind of are — but this is what scientists do to get an idea of the environment they’re studying,” Wilson said to the class.

As they entered the park, they’re let loose in groups of two or three in a dry environment to introduce the concept of a control sample. One group used the probe to take measurements of temperature, pH and moisture levels. Another group took a soil sample, squeezing, rolling it around in their hands and smudging it against their worksheet to get a sense of its texture. Walking a little farther down the hill, a smaller girl ventured into a creek to bottle a sample of water.

The deeper the group travels, the wetter the environment becomes.

“I like to think of wetlands as a cereal bowl,” Wilson said to the group. “If you pour milk into your cereal bowl, where does it go? Does it stay on the lip? No, it goes to the bottom, right? It’s the same here.”

Wilson pointed to a growth of skunk cabbage as the first sign they were entering wetlands, though the group smelled it well beforehand. Francis, a particularly eloquent tween who identified quantum physics as her favorite branch of science, wrinkled her nose and noted that it was an “apt name.”At the next site, Wilson asked one of her interns, Ashlyn Sloane, to lead them in “the bounce test.” As a group, they jumped up and down, laughing when the ground began to shake under them.

“Because the ground is so saturated, it’s like a bowl of water and we’re making a ripple,” Sloane said. “If we all work together, we’ll see if we can wobble this tree.”

The group agreed to identify the area as Bounce Tree and, with detective work from the next battery of tests, they decided the area was a scrub-shrub wetland, notable for it’s low-growing flora.

The next and last site was even wetter, and presented the group with a conundrum. The presence of Bog Labrador Tea strongly suggested it was a bog. But bogs are acidic, and the hydrology analysis turned up a 7 pH — confoundingly neutral.

Wilson suggested the area could be in ecological transition. The group wasn’t perturbed — the day was done, but they would be able to study their samples in the lab the next week.


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