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From classroom to creek

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A turkey baster isn’t usually included in third-grader Lily Krenzer’s classroom supplies. But much about her school day Thursday was atypical, from the Bear Creek current flowing around her wading boots to the chinook salmon whose spawning drew her and her classmates to Blue Heron Park that morning.

Carefully, she inserted sediment-filled water into a slot in an ice cube tray adjacent to the creek. As the dirt settled, the wriggling forms of stonefly nymphs and other macroinvertebrates appeared.

Krenzer knew just why she was looking at them.

“The salmon eat them,” she said.

In addition to the biologists running the macroinvertebrate and other stations, the chinook making their fall run up Bear Creek were the stars of the show, guiding another class of local students through the 26-year-old tradition of Salmon Watch.

More than bringing scientific concepts to life for a day, the program also is designed to spark a sense of ownership and stewardship in the children over their local natural resources.

“The Salmon Watch program is a great way to communicate to a population that is very receptive,” said Frances Oyung, a stormwater technician at Rogue Valley Sewer Services.

“We have an interest in communicating to people about water resources,” she said. “If we are going to maintain ... a functioning stream, with water resources in the Rogue Basin, it’s a multidimensional effort.”

Oyung has been a key local organizer of the program, which has spanned the state since 1993, for the last decade. She prepares students and teachers in the classroom before they come out to the creek, giving them a crash course in the terms they’ll be using and how they fit together.

Those include learning what a habitat is, how a lifecycle works and the role of water quality in salmon population health.

By the end of the season in another few weeks, Oyung will have coordinated visits for 1,500 students across the Rogue Valley this year alone.

Thursday’s group of nearly 60 kindergarten through fifth-graders from the Talent Outdoor Discovery Program wasn’t exactly a typical cohort of participants for a few reasons.

For one, the magnet program places particular emphasis on getting its students outdoors, meaning this is far from the first time most of the students have ventured outside of a classroom to learn.

Age was another peculiarity of the group: Oyung tries to keep the age range closer to middle school range, so that the concepts don’t have to be broken down too rudimentarily.

Some of the education transcended theories and complex observations, however — including when Jon Raybourn, fish biologist with the Bureau of Land Management, sliced into a hatchery-provided fish for dissection at a table under the park pavilion.

Equal parts horror and fascination suffused the faces of a dozen or so children watching, as Raybourn pulled out the male fish’s organs, explaining the purpose of each one.

“I feel like it’s already Halloween,” said one student after Raybourn pulled out the gills to show their structure and function.

Some of the activities were slightly less striking, but no less important in the ecosystem processes relevant to salmon.

Students also learned about stormwater management and water quality from Jennie Morgan, program manager at Rogue Valley Sewer Services, and participated in a riparian scavenger hunt, where they were encouraged to find different types of trees, berries and seeds.

“I think just that act of exploring and being tuned in, it’s giving them the skills that scientists use,” said Jessica Ward, one of the magnet program’s two teachers.

Students also touch on stewardship issues during the day, including the impact of people living along the Bear Creek Greenway on water quality.

“Kids are very aware of all the people that contribute trash in the waterway,” Oyung said.

Three more Salmon Watch days will round out the 2019 season, but Oyung said the program tends to garner interest from more schools than she can plan for, rather than fewer.

Dick Barbara, who was leading the macroinvertebrate station at the creek, knew why. A former teacher who once brought his own students on Salmon Watch days, he said that the program makes a nice change of pace for students.

“Getting ’em outdoors,” Barbara said, “they’re more focused when they’re doing a hands-on activity.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Jon Raybourn of BLM cuts opens a hatchery salmon with students at Blue Heron Park in Phoenix. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Jon Raybourn of the Bureau of Land Management shows students where to watch salmon spawning in Bear Creek Thursday morning. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune