California educators remove aquatic invasive species while learning new science teaching methods

Instagram screen capture of photo from Sacramento River TrustA recent Instagram post by the Sacramento River Preservation Trust summed up the Sacramento River Floodplains Institute, a three-day professional development workshop held in July:

“Lovin' the CSU Chico Project WET Floodplains Institute 2016 Sac River Trust float trip and invasive plant removal excursion. Red Bluff to Mill Creek. 106 degrees of good times. We love ACTIVE STEWARDSHIP! K-12 teachers learning river dynamics, riparian land values, and the many gifts of river time on the Sacramento River.”

Co-facilitated by Project WET California Coordinator Brian Brown of the Water Education Foundation and California State University, Chico Assistant Professor of Science Education Anne Stephens, the workshop combined Project WET activities, a river float trip, aquatic invasive plant removal and science standards introduction. Some 16 California educators as well as a half-dozen water and environmental agency professionals braved 100+ temperatures to take part.

Participants floated the Sacramento River between Red Bluff and Mill CreekParticipants floated the Sacramento River between Red Bluff and Mill Creek The Floodplains Institute concept is not new. The program started in 2012 and is available in multiple California watersheds. It has reached nearly 100 teachers at the CSU-Chico site alone since its inception in 2013. However, this year’s inclusion of “active stewardship” was a first. As Professor Anne Stephens explained, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), a new participant in the institute, asked if the educators would like to help remove invasive red sesbania plants from the river during the traditional river float from Red Bluff to Mill Creek. Sometimes called “rattlebox”, “rattlebrush” or “Scarlet wisteria,” red sesbania can cut off rivers and stream access and choke out native vegetation, leading to erosion and even flooding. The plants also contain chemicals that are poisonous to humans, livestock and wildlife if ingested.

“During our float trip, we stopped at the top of a long deposition bar to let off the float trip participants, who then worked their way down the beach pulling smaller plants,” Professor Stephens said. “The DFW biologist used a special removal tool to pull out the more established plants.”

Floodplains participants removed some 400 red sesbania (rattlebox) plantsFloodplains participants removed some 400 red sesbania (rattlebox) plants like this one She added that some 400 plants were removed during the session, noting that several of the educators were already making plans to involve their students in aquatic invasive species (AIS) removal during the coming school year.

Aquatic invasives were not the only water-related topic that will reach California students, however. Professor Stephens estimates that each secondary teacher at the Institute will reach 160 to 170 students, while each elementary teacher will usually reach 30—well over 1,000 students—in the coming school year. She called Project WET activities “the perfect fit for this program because it provides the hands-on, classroom component that supports field study and the presentations made by the agency professionals.”

Project WET California’s Brian Brown worked with participants on classic Project WET river and watershed activities such as “Color Me a Watershed”, “Blue River”, “Water Quality? Ask the Bugs”, “High Water History”, “Rainy-Day Hike”, “River Talk” and “Storm Water”. Professor Stephens said those activities in particular “help our participants to visualize both the State and Central Valley Water Systems, as well as build their understanding of urban floodplain issues.”

Participants also dived into the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the California-specific Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) Curriculum. She said that Project WET activities meet these standards and help teachers implement them.

“The 85 EEI units tend to be more text-based, so Project WET activities greatly enhance them with modeling, simulations and lab experiences,” Professor Stephens said. “Our participants walk away with Project WET Guide 2.0, as well as a grade-level-appropriate EEI Unit provided by Cal Recycle.”

Educators were joined by agency officials on the float tripEducators were joined by agency officials on the float trip Writing in post-workshop evaluations, participating educators praised the program for giving them new teaching tools while immersing them in science and nature.

One participant enthused that the workshop “has increased my excitement for teaching,” adding that “the foundation established on the first day helped me understand and appreciate the activities on the second and third days.”

“I was never bored,” that participant concluded. “Everything presented was relevant. I loved the enthusiasm and positive energy.”

Another participant said the workshop had helped her better understand the standards that California educators are required to meet: “I have a better understanding of the Common Core and NGSS and the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI), as well as how they relate and can be incorporated into classroom curriculum at each grade level.”

Writing on the evaluation, another educator said that learning how to integrate Project WET and other environmental education options into lessons “will make math and science more relevant” to students. One educator summed up the professional development (PD) experience simply, writing: “Best PD ever!”

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