Watershed Youth Camp Aims to Get Native Students Excited About STEM Fields

Hiking, biking and canoeing. It sounds like a great way to spend a couple weeks in the summer while learning skills that will help in future years. That’s precisely what a small class of middle school students did as part of a pilot program for a larger program still to come from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The group was small, beginning with 12 students and ending with seven but served as part of a pilot program funded by the College of Education at the University of Idaho. The Back to the Earth Project is funded for $1 million by NSF and will greatly expand this pilot project. It will continue for three years with camps lasting three weeks and involve students from both the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane tribes.

Marcie Galbreath, a graduate student at the University of Idaho, served as camp leader and helped develop the curriculum for the two-week camp that lasted from August 20-30. She explained how these fun activities were combined with scientific studies. “We want to introduce the kids to STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Canoeing was a recreational part of the camp but coordinated with other studies related to STEM. “We take the kids out canoeing and they do chemical assessments on the water such as temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity tests.” Those are all biological assessments, but they also do habitat assessment. “We’re doing all those things even while we’re out canoeing. We look at the land, birds and fish, the whole wetlands habitat,” Galbreath explained.

The chemical assessments show how much dissolved oxygen there is and the students learn its importance. Not only its importance to fish but how it helps keep lead on the bottom of the lake. “They’ve learned about contamination in the lake and the role dissolved oxygen plays,” Galbreath added.

The students biked a portion of the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, a 72-mile former railroad line now converted to biking, which begins on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation and follows lake and river shores for most of its length. Another activity was hiking the Indian Cliffs Trail to an area of huckleberry bushes, long a major food source for tribal members, where they talked about Native subsistence.

Students heard from the tribe’s water resource and cultural departments with a focus on what foods are native to the area and what are not.

Bazil Doran, a Coeur d’Alene tribal member and middle school student, said his favorite part of the camp was canoeing. Others might have chosen biking or hiking but all learned about the importance of STEM in addition to having fun.

Galbreath explained that middle school is traditionally when students are lost to science. “We want them excited about science, technology, engineering and math and keep them interested with hope they will come back and be stewards of their lands.”

Dr. Ann Kern, an assistant professor at the University of Idaho, was administrator for the camp. “This is part of a larger series of projects we have,” she explained. “We’re partnering with the Coeur d’Alenes and Spokanes to use this watershed because both tribes share it. It’s a way to build some stewardship, history and understanding of this place because this is their place.”

“Building a work force, using this place with science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is our focus,” she said. “Encourage kids to go into those fields so they can come back and participate in the work force. We need to think about the sustainability of this place and the future. That’s really the driving force.”

The students were loaned iPads and GPS units by the university. Students learned to use GPS units to determine coordinates within the study area and iPads to photograph those locations, thus producing a type of field guide. Those were shown to parents and community at the final wrap-up and barbecue.