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Nooksack Elementary students get multi-faceted education working with salmon

Sure, the fourth-grade students at Nooksack Elementary weren’t getting their hands filled with wriggling salmon, but they were getting hands-on — and plenty of hands-dirty — experiences working with the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement staff both in the school and at Everson’s Riverside Park.

“The field trip day is awesome,” says teacher Gladys Libolt.

But ahead of that awesome field trip comes plenty of preparation. Staff from Whatcom County’s Nooksack Salmon Enhancement organization has a curriculum that includes half a dozen in-class lessons to teach students about Pacific salmon, help them learn the life cycle of salmon and teach them about their environment and keeping water clear, clean and cold. Students start to tackle lessons on the water cycle and become aware of local watersheds, including the importance of those watersheds and pollution.

Then comes the field trip day, which starts at the park with three stations that students stop at for about 40 minutes each. Staff christens the students scientists, giving each of them a packet and clipboard, asking them to research the park and river to determine if it is a good environment for the salmon.

Stations include students learning about native plants to the area, pulling water samples from the river to search for macro-invertebrate and then checking water quality. “Students put on special goggles to protect their eyes and then determine how much oxygen is in the water,” Libolt says. “Kids love the idea of being a scientist and looking like a scientist.”

Libolt and fellow teacher Lisa Tiemersma says all three stations are well-run by the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement staff and really let the students take the lead, even having them present on different plants to their fellow students. Plus, expect plenty of bonuses, such as students understanding the word turbidity (a key water-quality test) by the end of the day.

After lunch, students will often help with restoration work. Donning ponchos and gloves, the students get equipped with shovels, sheers and clippers to work on removing invasive blackberry bushes. “My group worked so hard, it was so cute to see them digging their hearts out,” Libolt says. “When they would come up with a root they would all clap and cheer. It was just really great memories.”

While recent flooding at the river sent Tiemersma group away without shovels, the students still played plenty of games to help them further understand the life cycle of salmon.

“I think the kids have been to Riverside Park to play, but didn’t really understand the importance of the river and the importance of taking care of the streams and rivers they live in,” Libolt says. Working with the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement changes all of that. 

“It exposes them to a lot of great vocabulary and they are really learning about their environment,” Tiemersma says. “Instead of just being at a park, they now have a connection with it and see their health impacts the health of the environment in Whatcom County.”