With a splash, a couple of whoops and lots of careful adult guidance, the “Watershed Moments” project got underway in Cullowhee Creek on Thursday, April 7.

Every Thursday this month, weather permitting, 22 students from Cullowhee Valley School will wade into the water, take samples of aquatic life, and record observations and data while conducting research as part of an afterschool activity led by the Western Carolina University biology department and the Highlands Biological Station. On this outing, they were at the Jackson County Recreation Center, within sight of the school.

The project is funded by a three-year $159,123 grant from the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund to enhance science, technology, engineering and math education (also known as STEM) outside of traditional classrooms in North Carolina, and to provide hands-on experiences for students.

“This is a mayfly nymph and we found it in protected waters,” said fourth-grader Emma Wike, consulting a macroinvertebrate identification sheet while delicately cradling a larval insect. She made additional observations, such as aquatic creatures like the nymph are intolerant of pollution and her particular sample was smaller than a similar nymph caught in a mesh net by other students a few steps away. Addison Holt, another fourth-grader, took notes on the findings, pointing out that a mayfly nymph has two or three tails while a stonefly nymph has two. Then Wike added the nymph to a water-filled container with other wiggly things from the stream.

WCU senior Elizabeth Vickery peers into a dip net with Landon Spangler to see what they sampled from Cullowhee Creek.

The students in the project will examine levels of sediment and the velocity of water flow, gauge the health of aquatic life in the creek, and see the impact of land use, said Karen Kandl, project leader and associate director of Highlands Biological Station, a University of North Carolina system facility administered by WCU. They will get a better understanding of how a small stretch of their local stream has global implications, she said. Cullowhee 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. Its watershed covers 15,062 acres of steep, mountainous terrain in Jackson County and is a significant water resource for the region.

“The ‘Watershed Moments’ project enables our students to participate in creative scientific activities, have fun and make connections to the natural world around them,” said Lora Cox, a Cullowhee Valley School teacher coordinating the project with WCU and Highlands Biological Station. “Some of these students haven’t been in a creek before, and even for those who have, this is not about playing so much as it is exploration and discovery. So, it’s a new activity for everyone. And fun. We’re fortunate to host this project and we’re all getting something from it.”

Assisting the project are WCU School of Teaching and Learning students Brittany Timpson, a senior from Hayesville, and Elizabeth Vickery, a senior and Cullowhee resident, along with Traci Ballance, a graduate student in biology from Elizabeth City. They described how the project incorporates different facets of aquatic ecology and science, including biology, physics and chemistry. “The students are enthusiastic,” Ballance said. “They are fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Cullowhee Valley School and have formulated a hypothesis that they are researching this spring.”

The students will give presentations on their completed work during an afterschool reception on Thursday, June 9, at the school. Also, the final Zahner Conservation Lecture of the season at Highlands Biological Station on Thursday, Sept. 8, in Highlands will be devoted to the “Watershed Moments” project, with a presentation by Kandl and Patricia Bricker, associate professor of science education and associate director of WCU’s School of Teaching and Learning.

For more information about the project, contact Kandl at 828-526-2602 or kkandl@wcu.edu.