Bringing local conservation to class

On November’s Pro D Day, some teachers learned about an opportunity to connect in-class theory with local conservation work.

Grade 11 biology student Dezirae Wall from Nechako Valley Secondary handles a sturgeon with care at the Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Facility on Nov. 19.

While students in the Nechako Lakes school district enjoyed a long weekend on November’s Professional Development Day, some teachers learned about an opportunity to connect in-class theory with local conservation work.

On Nov. 20 in Nechako Valley Secondary, the Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative (NWSRI) presented to over 30 teachers from Fraser Lake, Fort St. James, and Vanderhoof an outdoor education curriculum for students in grades 4 to 7.

Including a tour of the Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Facility on Burrard Avenue, the morning of learning was an opportunity to showcase to teachers, normally busy in their classroom, readily available interactive lessons that take place outdoors and close to home, said Wayne Salewski, chair of the Nechako White Sturgeon Community Working Group.

“A lot is happening in downtown Vanderhoof,” Salewski said. “Under the bridge you can see salmon and sturgeon spawning.”

Though students in the past had the opportunity to name and release sturgeon into the Nechako River in the springtime, there are also other education opportunities on Vanderhoof’s water system in town that teachers can carry out throughout the year, he explained.

“Classes can walk along [Murray Creek and Stoney Creek] and see a number of projects,” where fish habitats and migration passages have been restored, Salewski added.

The curriculum will allow students to start early and be part of the on-going conservation effort for the endangered Nechako white sturgeon, whose population currently numbers at about 350 but thousands were present years before. A variety of factors affect its habitat, including the Kenney Dam, the development of agriculture, climate change, as well as fishing, he explained.

Tying the lessons to a multitude of issues related to not only barns and ranches, but also streams, the sturgeon curriculum would help to “bring the farming community social bar up,” Salewski said.

“Most kids [in the area] grow up on land in the agricultural belt,” he said. “Education is population manipulation over time.”

In teaching stream keeper issues, the curriculum aims to increase awareness of the Nechako River and its watershed, as well as to instil into students at a young age the idea that it’s not just a river, said Michelle Roberge, a fisheries biologist who developed the curriculum with NWSRI.

“It gives students ownership, increasing their level of respect and engagement with the river,” Roberge said, adding that one of the field trips suggested by the curriculum take place at the Murray Creek demonstration site, where chinook salmon were not able to go up an old culvert to spawn 50 years ago.

She explained that though the lessons are organized into three units — introduction, watershed, and sturgeon — each lesson is standalone and independent, allowing teachers to pick and choose.

“You don’t have to teach the whole thing, though you’re more than welcome to do it,” Roberge said. “The goal of the curriculum is to make it easy, with all the research already done.”

She added, “Teachers don’t need to do background work and figure out how to do it…you can just pick up the binder.”

With the assistance of Mia Moutray, who currently teaches science and humanities in Nechako Valley Secondary’s middle school wing, the development of the curriculum started three years ago and was piloted by several classes during the 2013/14 school year, Roberge said. As a field trip in May 2014, while the sturgeon facility was under construction, some Vanderhoof students visited Murray Creek and some in Fraser Lake visited Stellako River.

Presenting a curriculum that has been available since last year — though not many teachers have tried the lessons yet — the sturgeon presentation is an example of what Professional Development Days are for, said Darren Carpenter, the school district’s career and trades program coordinator.

“To remind these folks the resources that are available,” Carpenter said, adding that it’s an opportunity for teachers to experience written plans in person as well.

“Even with adults, you want to actively see it,” he said. “To resonate with teachers, and then students.”

Carpenter added that with over 120 partnerships with different organizations and industries, the school district has organized past professional development events for teachers that include workshops on robotics, as well as rocks and minerals.

“We got to keep career programs relevant to the region’s industries such as forestry, mining, and fishing,” he said. “Introduce students at a lower level.”

Gail Hiebert, a Grade 3 teacher at David Hoy Elementary in Fort St. James, has seen the local sturgeon conservation project from its beginning years ago to now. Involving her students with the springtime sturgeon release, she also adapted sturgeon-related lessons from her own research in the past — including wooden sturgeon cut-outs painted by her students to decorate the school’s fence, Hiebert said.

“It’s the best day ever,” she said. “The kids loved it.”

For her, the endangered Nechako White sturgeon is a problem that has happened in the last 50 years, but “we don’t want it to happen on our watch,” Hiebert said.

She first heard of the issue in a BBC documentary about the Fraser River sturgeon release in the past.

“On the cusp of extinction, which is criminal to me,” Hiebert said.

Before the current sturgeon facility was built, her lessons included letters to the government for funding a conservation facility, she added.

“This year, we can get a whole new generation of kids excited,” she said.

For Tyrel Ray and Dave Brown, currently teaching in Fraser Lake Elementary-Secondary, it’s their first time visiting the sturgeon facility.

“I see lots of opportunities for outdoor education, and the possibility to adapt,” Ray said, as he teaches primarily students in the secondary grades.

As a teacher on call, Brown found the tour inspiring.

“It sets you thinking about programs, things about stewardship,” Brown said. “It’s a mutual need; there’s work to be done, and students need to go out and experience things.”

 

Looking forward: tourism and curriculum accessibility

The Nechako Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative is looking to gather hundreds of students from the area for next spring’s sturgeon release on May 13, 2016, with a potential visit from Premier Christy Clark. A sturgeon centre with space for visiting classes, as well as post-secondary researchers, is in the works, said Wayne Salewski, chair of its community working group.

The initiative is also working with the District of Vanderhoof to provide tour guides for next year, Salewski added.

“Providing opportunities for two students, a hands-on training aspect,” he said.

Other future education projects for the initiative include constructing a public fishing pond and interpretative trails. By teaching visitors how to fish rainbow trout, including a barbecue to show how fish can be cooked, the events will provide outreach programs for new immigrants, Salewski explained.

For local school opportunities, groups of Grade 11 biology students from Nechako Valley Secondary have been visiting the facility every Thursday since mid-November to assist with current conservation work, which includes mixing eggs and shaking larvae out — a simulation of the sturgeons’ natural growing environment on the river bed, Salewski added.

Though the presented curriculum is designed for students in grades 4 to 7, it’s a living document to be updated as needed, according to new research and response from teachers, said Michelle Roberge, fisheries biologist and developer of the curriculum.

The lesson plans provide a basis for teachers to adapt, and higher level material can be developed for senior biology students. Some French immersion teachers have also requested a version of the curriculum in French, Roberge said.