WCU helps hands-on learning ― and a creek runs through it

A partnership between the Highlands Biological Station, Highlands Biological Foundation, Cullowhee Valley School and Western Carolina University’s biology department and School of Teaching and Learning will turn a section of Jackson County’s Cullowhee Creek into a laboratory, elementary students into researchers, and create a greater community appreciation of the importance of mountain streams.

The “Watershed Moments: Exploring Science and Math in Cullowhee Creek” project will begin in March, funded by a three-year $159,123 grant from the Student Science Enrichment Program of the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund to enhance science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education that takes place outside of traditional classroom time. The private foundation, headquartered at Research Triangle Park, is dedicated to the advancement of biomedical sciences by supporting research and education. Its Student Science Enrichment Program supports diverse programs with a goal to enable primary and secondary students to participate in creative scientific activities.

The project will be based at Cullowhee Valley School, located near the WCU campus, and involve hands-on teaching and learning about different facets of aquatic ecology, including the biology, physics and chemistry of streams and rivers. Students in the afterschool program for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders will participate in data collection and analysis, introducing them to scientific inquiry and fostering a holistic understanding of the importance of watersheds, said Karen Kandl, associate director of Highlands Biological Station, a University of North Carolina system facility administered by WCU.

Cullowhee Creek flows north through Jackson County and its watershed covers 15,062 acres of steep, mountainous terrain and is a significant water resource for the county. The creek empties into the Tuckaseigee River, which flows into the Little Tennessee and Tennessee Rivers, and finally the Mississippi River before entering the Gulf of Mexico. Program leaders Kandl and Highlands Biological Station director Jim Costa will team up with graduate students from WCU’s biology department and a lead teacher at Cullowhee Valley School for the after-school program.

Watershed Moments grant

Hands-on stream research is used as a teaching tool as sixth-graders from Cullowhee Valley School measure the characteristics of Jackson County’s Caney Fork in 2013

“This project will connect the local to the global, with students examining real-world issues here at home, and help them think about potential solutions,” Kandl said. “It will be an excellent opportunity for students to engage with scientists and professionals, see the connection of STEM fields in their lives, and gain confidence in their abilities to collect and present data. They will examine levels of sediment, the velocity of water flow, gauge the health of aquatic life in the creek, and see the impact of land use. And I believe there is a real opportunity for all this to spark some interest in math and science that could lead to future careers.”

In addition to purchasing equipment and materials, the grant will provide stipends for internships, teacher involvement and related project costs. Participants will gather annually at Highlands Biological Station to assess their progress and share their results with the community.

“Students will be studying an approximately 7-mile reach of the Cullowhee Creek,” said Lora Cox, the Cullowhee Valley School teacher who will be coordinating the project with WCU. “While many opportunities are present to study the stretch of creek that flows behind Cullowhee Valley School, we want students to study various sections of the creek in order to analyze and compare data.”

About 20 students will experience STEM education through outdoor learning, she said. “They will be able to connect and work closely with experts in stream ecology, hydrology and other environmental fields through scientific investigation and face-to-face discussions. This is a long-term project ― three years ― which will allow for continuity and in-depth study, and these types of authentic experiences allow students to investigate and provide possible solutions for real issues found in our watersheds.”

The project is intended to serve as a basis for a lifetime of thinking scientifically and meaningfully about the environment. Agreeing with Kandl, she said, “It will open up a world of career possibilities in the fields of science and math.”

For more information on the Watershed Moments project, contact Kandl at 828-526-2602 or kkandl@email.wcu.edu.