Teenagers, bugs and watersheds

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Jessie Caza (née King) stands at the front of the class, mask on. A classroom of Grade 9 students squirm and fidget as the Wildsight educator recaps what was learned in the session before: What’s the ratio of water in the world to what we can actually use? – And what is a watershed? – Does anyone remember where the headwaters are to the Columbia River?

Answers are pulled from Grade 9 science students like teeth from an old west dentist chair.

To prep them for the day’s lesson, Caza gives the class at Invermere’s David Thompson Secondary School a primer on macroinvertebrates by comparing them to teenagers. Some students, she explains, need order, calm and neatness. Others don’t care; they can thrive in messy, dirty, chaotic places.

This elicits a few grins. Good. The kids are listening. Similar to students, she explains, some macroinvertebrates only survive in cold, clean aquatic habitats, whereas others are tolerant of aquatic pollution or warmer water temperatures. If these bugs are found in the water, it could indicate a problem with water quality.

Once the foundations have been laid, Caza, a Wildsight educator for the past four years, builds on the knowledge with hands-on projects to take the learning from idea to experience in this Know Your Watershed lesson. Like most things in life, this lesson is better learnt by doing than watching. So, with a wagonful of tools carted behind her, Caza leads the students outside.

This is where students start to lean in, to forget they need to act cool and instead stare with interest at the bright green handheld microscopes, the flow chart of macroscopic bugs, the beakers and bags, the goggles and the thick, heavy-duty gloves that protect hands from chemicals.

Know Your Watershed is a Columbia Basin Trust program administered and delivered by Wildsight to over 1,000 students across the basin each year. Through the program, students learn about the vast and interconnected water system, from origins through to local taps and down the drains.

“Students learn where their water comes from and where their waste water goes – which makes them look up from their studies and social lives, to the world outside and how it works,” describes Caza. “They meet professionals in their community with jobs that make a positive impact on their lives daily, good potential future jobs for the students. They meet tiny invertebrates living in the creeks and recognize that there is life all around them – visible or not – that should be considered when humans make choices. They have the opportunity to try the role of being a water quality scientist by doing tests to sample water quality. Finally in learning about the Columbia River and its route, they recognize that we have a privileged position at the headwaters and thus have the responsibility to think about those living downstream.”

It’s a heavy mandate, but one that educators like Caza are prepared to meet.

Today’s lesson is to investigate the health of the water from two local creeks: Abel and Toby. Abel Creek tumbles humbly downhill alongside a gravel road from the District of Invermere’s water supply at Paddy Ryan Lakes to Lake Windermere. Toby Creek rushes in turquoise fury at the bottom of its self-carved canyon through Invermere, this runoff from Jumbo Glacier cutting an icy-cold line between Invermere and the Purcells before joining the vast Columbia River.

The Grade 9 science kids cluster around the two buckets; equipment is dutifully described and doled out under Caza’s careful supervision. The kids undertake chemical water tests such as pH, nitrate, phosphate, dissolved oxygen and turbidity, as well as investigate the diversity and number of macroinvertebrates – and how the types of bugs they find (clean-water loving or pollution-tolerating) can help tell the health of the water.

Students squint at turkey basters and squirt water samples into ice cube trays. Others raise handheld microscopes to eye level, peering at microscopic life within. Separate crews shake vials, held up to the light to see transforming colours from chemical investigations. It is a whir of activity, with worksheets clutched in hands or scattered on the ground as budding scientists consult and characterize their findings. Banter rolls in comfortable cadence to the work of testing the water and searching for skittering insects.

Before long, everyone has had an opportunity to study the water and report on their findings. Fingers chilled but minds expanded, the bell rings and students trail off to their next class, hopefully a little more inspired to consider the science at work in our water system.

Science 9 teacher Anthony Baker says in spite of the challenges with COVID-19 (no field trips could happen this year due to restrictions), his students were able to learn a lot from the Know Your Watershed program.

“Students learned how to tell the health of a water system by the organisms in it, and how we as communities affect the health of it,” lists Baker. “It is a valuable program, as we should all know where our water comes from and where it goes; it might help to be more conservative with how we use it.”
Most often, Know Your Watershed is presented to Grade 9 students. But sometimes, the program fits in well with other deeper learning initiatives, such as Amanda Davison’s Geography 12 class, just down the hall from Baker’s classroom.

Students in Davison’s class learned about the local watershed, built their own watersheds to see the impacts of various environmental factors on water sources, and had the opportunity to improve their mock watersheds after a first round of learning, including better water management practices and reduced pollution in their model rivers.

“The program overlapped nicely with course topics, such as resource management and sustainability, environmental issues, and connections and interactions between the Earth’s spheres,” explains Davison. “Being able to bring that focus to local landform features and natural resources in the valley was a great experience for students in the class. The program was valuable and engaging as it provided hands-on learning opportunities, and a way for the students to get to know their own watershed on a personal level.”

Caza sees the benefits of Know Your Watershed stretching far beyond meeting science requirements for students, or getting kids outside the classroom to learn in, and from the outdoors, though those are great goals too.

“Through educational programs such as Know Your Watershed, young adults learn to recognize situations (such as water pollution) that need to change and then practice working collaboratively to make creative new solutions,” says Caza. “ Know Your Watershed teaches students about the route and history of the Columbia River, the community-specific path and process water goes through before coming out of the tap, and where wastewater goes and how it’s treated before returning to the water table.”

Lessons like these happen all across the Columbia Basin through Know Your Watershed every year. To learn more, visit our website.

Know Your Watershed is a Columbia Basin Trust program administered and delivered by Wildsight.

Please note: As of September 2023, this Columbia Basin Trust program is no longer in operation. Know Your Watershed, a regionally-based watershed education program…Learn more