Students find Luckiamute a fascinating outdoor classroom (2015)
What better way to learn biology than by tugging on a pair of waders, plunging into the water and examining the organisms you scoop out?
That’s what eighth graders from Salem do every fall at Luckiamute State Natural Area, southwest of Salem. At the annual Bio Blitz field trip, students collect samples and data for everything from aquatic insects to birds to animal scat. They incorporate their field work into a year-long research project that culminates with a written paper and oral presentation before a panel of scientists.
I offered to assist at this fall’s field trip, where I was assigned to the lichen team. We walked along the park’s tranquil ½-mile trail to West Pond looking for as many examples of the organisms as the amateur lichenologists could find. Hesitant to reveal my ignorance on the subject, I asked if lichen is the same as moss. My young tutors were quick to correct me: it’s not. Moss is a plant; lichen arises from a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungus.
They found a dozen different lichen examples—streaming strands hanging from tree limbs, puffy reddish balls clustered like blooms and scrubby pale green carpets. Who knew?
“This oak tree is covered in so much lichen you can’t even see the trunk’s original color,” said Makayla Whiteley, 13, eagerly documenting what she found.
Nicki Johnson, 13, carried a ball of the spongy substance. “This would make really good bedding if you were surviving out in the woods,” she said.
Nearby, the fish team found dozens of tiny bullfrog tadpoles, and the animal team spotted a group of curious river otter that had found their way to a pond on the east side of the park from the nearby Willamette River. The enthusiasm and curiosity was contagious.
No surprise—students say they prefer learning outside than in the classroom. “It’s more similar to what actual scientists do, coming out to research in the field,” said Tessa Alvarez, 13.
Plus, it’s hopefully building something that’s harder to measure than test scores and college prep.
I spent a term during my sophomore year of high school in an environmental science class that was structured around regular field trips to a city park where we, too, collected real data and presented it to a panel of scientists at year’s end.
I learned plant identification, teamwork and presentation skills, and I surely knew the difference between moss and lichen. The latter may have been lost as I pursued a career in journalism, but the overall experience tapped into something lasting—a lifelong connection to nature. Outside is where I feel most grounded, most serene, most in touch with me. That’s in part due to creative educators from my youth and living in a place whose people value accessible, well-maintained, public parks that are open for all of us to play and learn.
Whether you’re a teacher or a parent or a nature nut like me, fall is an ideal time to take the young people in your life outside to watch the season’s change, see science in action and get back in touch with our innate connection to nature.
Plan a field trip with Oregon State Parks
Salem’s Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School has teamed up with Luckiamute State Natural Area for its annual Bio Blitz field trip for the past five years. It’s just one of dozens of partnerships between Oregon State Parks and schools statewide.
From tidepool exploration at Ecola State Park to geology at Silver Falls State Park to Native American history at Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area, opportunities abound to create a customized learning experience in a state park. Teachers and youth leaders should call in advance to schedule an excursion. Parks staff encourage several month’s notice for scheduling a guided lesson with a ranger.
“Collaborating with schools is part of our mission to be an educational resource for the community,” said Vicki Moles, Visitor Experience Coordinator for Oregon State Parks. “We can provide diverse outdoor settings that serve as spring boards for learning about biology, ecology, geology and history.”