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Class at the refuge proves an eye-opening event for SMS students


by: BARBARA SHERMAN - UP THERE - Looking at a screech owl in the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge are (from left) Gardiner Platt, TRNWR environmental education specialist, and Sherwood Middle School students Zak Carson, Cole Schaefer and Liam Burgess.Just after 8 a.m. on Jan. 30, a flock of honking geese chased three eagles away from their nests in full view of the visitors’ center at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge – just another day at the refuge located north of Sherwood, except on this day there was a group of Sherwood Middle School students on hand to watch the spectacle.

The sixth- through eighth-grade students are in teacher Debbie Frankel’s B day environmental science class, and they were joined at the refuge by several Portland State University students taking a class on promoting science inquiry in middle school classrooms.

Specifically, the PSU students’ class is geared toward water quality and invasive species in freshwater habitats.

“This is a partnership between PSU and Sherwood Middle School to promote scientific inquiry into water quality and invasive species issues in the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge,” Frankel said. “University students will mentor sixth-eighth-grade students in the development of scientific experiments, hypotheses, study implementation, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of study results.

“Middle school students will develop a research question that pertains to water quality or aquatic invasive species within the refuge.”

While that was the scientific reason behind the trip to the refuge, all the students enjoyed getting out in nature to observe plants and animals up close in their native environment despite the frigid temperature.

The SMS and PSU students met in front of the visitors’ center and set off at a brisk pace through several parts of the refuge that included trails normally closed to the public until May so as not to disturb nesting birds.

One group of five SMS students and several PSU students was led by Gardiner Platt, an environmental education specialist at the refuge whose full-time position is funded by a grant obtained by the Friends of the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.

Land set aside

Platt explained that the land was set aside as a refuge in 1992, after the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife purchased what was farmland and began to restore the original habitats.

“The two creeks that flow through here – Rock Creek and Chicken Creek – do not follow their natural flow area,” said Platt, adding that wetlands filter water on its way to the ocean.

She showed the group the various habitat edges that have formed between the forest, the savannah, the meadow, the wetlands and other parts of the refuge.

At the farthest point of their walk, the students saw a screech owl in a tree, which was probably the highlight of the visit.

Back at a covered area set up with picnic tables near the visitors’ area, the students broke into small groups to discuss what they had seen.

One group discussed the food chain, with a PSU student noting that “humans are the apex predator.”

A PSU student asked, “What do you think is the most important part of the restoration process here?” SMS student Cole Schaefer answered, “Getting rid of the farmers.”

Corbin Bishop added, “It took an incredible amount of money to persuade the farmers to move and plant trees and move the earth around.”

Teagan Wood said, “I am amazed at how they got everything to look so natural,” and Corbin added, “I like how they protect the trees with the sleeves. I wonder how they knew what to do.”

After a PSU student asked the middle-schoolers what they learned during their visit, Corbin said, “We’ve been studying this in school and we learned about healthy and unhealthy streams. Healthy ones have lots of bugs. In our own little patch of Sherwood, the forest doesn’t have that many animals, and it is polluted with lots of garbage and cigarette butts.”

According to Frankel, PSU professor Angela Strecker needed a community group to partner with for her Capstone class, and the partnership was born, with the two groups spending quite a bit of time together over three months.

“I have divided my students into 10 groups, and two to three PSU students have been assigned to each group,” Frankel said. “Each time we get together, the groups meet to plan their science inquiry project. PSU students will be visiting my classroom for a total of five times. We have planned two field trips to the refuge so we will be going again.”

Student enjoys wildlife

When asked to describe their morning at the refuge, several SMS student said they were inspired by what they saw and want to go again.

“I enjoyed the refuge because of all the wildlife I saw,” Liam Burgess said. “We saw a northern screech owl, and it looked like a little box. We also saw many other animals like birds and geese.”

Corbin said, “At the refuge, I saw more animals than our own park. I hope it stays that way. It is full of life and plants. I encourage everyone to take care of it and their own environment.”

Cole added, “When we went to the refuge with the PSU students I was really amazed of all the wildlife I saw there. Right when we came, I saw a bald eagle nest and the eagles on a strip of land. Then later on, our group saw a screech owl in the trees sleeping. So when I was there at the refuge, my favorite part was finding the animals and also the wildlife.”

Zak Carson explained, “It was a great experience. I had lots of fun plus seeing that owl was so cool. Can’t wait till next time.”

And finally, Teagan said, “I definitely enjoyed the refuge. I liked the amount of animals they hosted and how natural they made it look for the animals.

“We saw one major animal as a group. It was a screech owl in an oak tree. We also visited a deck overlooking the river. Overall, the refuge is a great place to visit.”

The Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge is located at 19255 S.W. Pacific Highway,. Visit fws.gov/tualatinriver