OSU Extension’s StreamWise Students Develop a New Channel in Science
By Rachel Werling, Jackson County OSU Extension Service

This year, two seventh grade classes from the Talent Middle School (TMS) played a critical role as field scientists at a new salmon habitat restoration project underway on Bear Creek in Medford.
In its seventh year of watershed science and outreach, OSU’s StreamWise natural resources education program began a pilot program to find new ways to up the stakes in its youth education.  The goal of this new direction is to connect classes with local restoration and research partners and projects, finding meaningful ways for students to make actual science-based contributions to on the ground projects.

At the Coyote Trails Nature Center (CTNC) in Medford, a project is underway to reintroduce a historic back channel of Bear Creek.  Under natural conditions, creeks like Bear Creek have a complex channel with many side channels and backwater areas that provide critical habitat for young native fish, including endangered coho salmon. In the winter, these side channel areas offer protected refuges out of the way of winter flood waters, preventing young fish from being washed down stream.  In the summer, such areas are connected to the subsurface flow of the creek, providing critical cooler water habitat, at times when the main channel is more likely to experience warmer temperatures unhealthy for native fish. A history of gravel mining and channelization to control flooding has drastically reduced such habitat available along Bear Creek, and is considered one of the important missing pieces for coho recovery. The Coyote Trails back channel project aims to help remedy that and is being spearheaded by the Bear Creek Watershed Council (BCWC) with a host of technical partners.

StreamWiseArtTextWith a history of partnership with both the CTNC and BCWC, the back channel project presented a perfect opportunity to involve StreamWise students. Frequently, science and restoration projects are challenged by the long term cost of monitoring the effect of projects or environmental trends. Scientists and technicians are expensive, and trends are best revealed over the long term.  This need for long term monitoring and data collection was seen as a perfect role for students.  Project partners worked together to choose field techniques that would be possible for students to perform while collecting the quality of data needed for accuratescientific study.  

Students-veg-transectCollaborating with project designers, and Talent Middle School teachers, Jackson County OSU Extension faculty Rachel Werling designed an in-depth program for two seventh grade classes. The multi-contact program used the back channel project as a science teaching vehicle.  For a month, students explored and researched many aspects of stream and salmon ecology to develop an understanding of the project. They practiced monitoring techniques on TMS school grounds in preparation to establish the real monitoring sites needed for the channel project.

On a sunny morning in May, a bus load of eager student-scientists arrived at the nature center. Prepared with understanding and experience, they launched into a day as field scientists guided by expert Salmon Watch instructors, professional scientists and restoration experts.  

The seventh graders established baseline monitoring sites which will be incorporated into the restoration.  The students carefully used GPS units, compasses and cameras to establish accurate, permanent “photo-points” that document the site conditions before introduction of the channel.  These same points will be used after the restoration, and over time to clearly show what visible changes result from the channel’s introduction.


Students also established vegetation transects that bisect the Bear Creek floodplain across the path of the planned back-channel.  They carefully documented types of vegetation and presence of noxious weeds.  These permanent transects will be resurveyed after the introduction of the channel and over time to help chronicle vegetation changes resulting from the restoration, changes in hydrology, and weed management strategies. 

In addition to the back-channel specific monitoring, students gathered data on the water quality of Bear Creek, sampling aquatic macro-invertebrates as indicators of water quality and testing dissolved oxygen, pH levels and others.  All of the data collected is being entered into an online science platform hosted by OSU ( where it will be available to future students to add or refer to. It will also be maintained at the Coyote Trails Nature Center. The Bear Creek Watershed Council, working with Job’s Council youth have added to the student-led monitoring and future students will continue to collect and record data from these periodically. It is this kind of long term documentation that informs scientists and land managers, allowing for the best management of our world’s natural resources. 

Involving students in this important work has numerous beneficial results.  It places the science they might otherwise only “practice” on paper into a real world context, improving students’ understanding and providing relevance for their learning, effectively countering the perennial question: “why are we learning this?!”  It exposes students to professional science and natural resource management careers and skills at a time when our country faces declining interest in these fields. And importantly, it offers concrete benefits to scientists and restoration specialists by providing a solution to the expensive need for long term data collection and monitoring.

OSU’s StreamWise program will continue working with many more schools and partners in the Rogue Valley next year, developing similar opportunities to connect students and natural scientists in mutually beneficial projects.


Share this