Students on the Road for Science
For two weeks in July, seven Heritage University students and 11 high school students from White Swan and Yakima traveled more than 2,000 miles for a class that was one part field experience and one part cultural exchange. The course, People of the Big River, took the students on an academic adventure that crossed eastern Washington and Oregon.
“This was a really unique experience that connected these students with science, history and culture in a way you just can’t do in a classroom,” said Dr. Jessica Black, assistant professor of Environmental Science. “They really got a sense for how modern-day science is intertwined with traditional practices for the preservation and management of natural resources.”
The long journey included visits to the tribal lands of peoples who once lived on the Columbia River or one of its tributaries. Students met with tribal elders who described their traditional lands, ecosystems and cultures to help bridge the gap between Western science and traditional ecological knowledge. The students took this broader traditional perspective and—with guidance from Heritage professors, White Swan High School science teachers, and scientists from local tribes and the US Forest Service—used it to understand common goals surrounding natural resource management and sustainability.
Their experiences varied from site to site. The trip began at Heritage University with Yakama Nation scientists and elders explaining the importance of the local environment, which set the tone for the trip to come. Later, scientists at Warm Springs Indian Reservation provided students with hands-on experience using radiotelemetry to track mule deer. At Deschutes National Forest in Bend, Oregon, students met with the US Forest Service and volunteered on a preservation project, clearing brush and litter from trails and digging trenches to divert water from the paths.
At the Tamkaliks Pow Wow in Wallowa, Oregon, students met with a pioneer in the fight to save the Pacific lamprey, Nez Perce tribal elder Elmer Crow. They also met with Nez Perce fisheries managers working to restore salmon habitats. The students learned about the cultural importance of first-foods management. They also learned how to play stick games thanks to cultural specialists from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla.
In northern Washington at the Spokane Indian Reservation, students learned about wildlife and fish management and later headed out for fieldwork, which included setting and camouflaging small animal traps and wading through streams to net fish for specimen sampling.
Heading farther north, the students got the chance to dig for 48 million-year-old fossils in Republic, Washington. They also worked on a wolf survey with natural resource managers from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville. And they finished their trip at Dry Falls, Washington, imagining the power of the Glacial Lake Missoula Floods that carved out the surrounding area 15,000 years ago.
“It was such a great experience that I almost wanted to change my major,” laughed Charlie Fiander, a sophomore majoring in education.
Black stresses that while the trip was fun, it was really all about the learning that comes from this kind of hands-on experience. Daily activities included the scientific method and its practical application in natural resource management. The students also kept journals and wrote daily blogs covering their experiences and what they learned about cultural customs and the many career paths open to them with the right education.
For Heritage senior Francisco Ramirez, the experience cemented his interest in a career with the US Forest Service.
“It was something that I had been considering for a while, but once I met them, talked to them and got a feel for what they really do, I am even more convinced that it is what I want to work toward,” he said. “I’d like to work with the Spokane Tribe next year on my senior project.”
The impact on the high school students who participated was equally as powerful. Black tells the story of one student who started the trip with little more than a passing interest in science and no real expectation to go to college.
“By the time we were done, he was saying to me: ‘This is pretty cool. I think I want to do this. I want to go to Heritage,’” Black said.
The People of the Big River field class was developed through a National Environmental Education Foundation grant titled America’s Great Outdoors: Connecting Youth to the Outdoors. It was presented in partnership with the
university’s Center for Native Health and Culture with support from the Yakama Nation Department of Natural Resources, the Yakama Nation Youth Activities and the Muckleshoot Charity Fund.
You can read the students’ blogs online at heritage.edu/PeopleoftheBigRiver