Anchorage elementary students hit Westchester Lagoon as part of watershed investigations

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ANCHORAGE Anchorage is a unique environment, to say the least, and a group of young scientists from schools along Chester Creek spent Wednesday and Thursday morning investigating a single question: Is the water at Westchester Lagoon, and in the Chester Creek watershed as a whole, clean enough to healthily support salmon?

“I was able to pull a live smolt out of a fish trap, so I'm pretty sure the answer is yes,” said Suzanna Henderson, a student researcher.

Oh, and by the way, these are elementary students – mostly fourth graders – doing this research.

“It's really important to give kids experiences - hands-on experiences,” said STEM Curriculum Coordinator Kathryn Kurtz. “Most of the students in Anchorage don't even know there's creeks running through their neighborhoods. Sometimes our creeks are only three or four feet wide, up in the upland areas. But they feed into larger and larger creeks, and what we do in the watershed affects all the water systems.”

Students were out at Westchester Lagoon seeking a number of health indicators demonstrating safety of the water for salmon.

Some of the tests included looking at water temperature and pH, velocity of the water, and the types of organisms students could find that also require clean water.

“We studied macroinvertebrates, and we have our notebooks, which say what kind they are and what quality they are,” said Elliott Venable, another student researcher. “We found Mayflies, which are in good quality water.”

Via a number of on-site experiments and activities, the student scientists found that, unlike most places in the United States, the health of watersheds in the Anchorage area is for the most part still intact: So much so that it can still support native runs of wild Alaskan salmon.

However, these young researchers weren’t only learning about the health of the environment. They confronted the importance of taking care of it, too.

The future of salmon in Anchorage depends heavily upon the understanding of citizens that the city is built in and around half a dozen different watersheds.

“Experiences like this are really important for students to understand,” said parent Shelly Morgan. “We live in a great place here in Alaska, and we have so many important places like the watershed. Making sure that students are keeping it healthy and not throwing trash in, and able to understand why, that's important.”

The effort of the watershed research opportunity for students was launched in part to also promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education across Anchorage, according to Kurtz. It’s part of a series of programs that use particular science kits in order to build the STEM curriculum by completing science lessons through engaging STEM activities.

This ASD Watershed Investigation program is a partnership between the Anchorage School District STEM Department, Alaska Geographic, Alaska Sea Grant, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, 4-H/UAF Cooperative Extension Service, Get Outdoors Anchorage, and the Anchorage Park Foundation, who all came together to present the final activity sessions during Sea and Creek Week in Anchorage.

The majority of the instructors are volunteer experts, and anyone with knowledge to share and desire to help can learn more here