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Students jump into Eco Ed Day

By Staff | Sep 28, 2018

Sue Sitter/PCT Larry Brooks, of Dakota College at Bottineau (right), examines a sample of freshwater animals in a Rugby seventh grader's net.

A Rugby Public School bus rumbled down a gravel road to Balta Dam Wednesday morning, carrying 38 seventh graders eager to catch snails and minnows, squish soil between their fingers, and examine pinecones and animal bones.

The students came from Rugby schools to participate in Eco Ed Day, an annual educational event presented by the Pierce County Soil Conservation District.

Organizer Crystal Martodam of the Soil Conservation District pooled resources and personnel from North Dakota Department of Forestry, North Dakota State College at Bottineau, North Dakota State University Extension, the state Department of Fish and Game, and the state Natural Resource Conservation Service to teach lessons on preserving the environment.

“We invite all the county schools out to learn about conservation; the different ecosystems that are around, how to take care of them, what’s in them, why you need to care for them,” Martodam told the Tribune.

Rugby seventh grade science teacher Melissa Goddard said of her students, “They learn lots of things from water quality, to range land, to soils, preventing soil erosion. It’s the best hands-on activity that they can do, and get them outside of the classroom and learn something that applies to them in real life.”

Although students hurried off the bus eager for hands-on learning, the morning began with a written pre-test.

“Don’t worry about getting things wrong; guess and move on. That’s why you’re supposed to learn about it at these stations,” Martodam told the students, who asked if the exercise would be graded.

After the pre-test, students were grouped and began lessons at five stations: watersheds, soil, rangeland, forestry and wildlife.

“Everybody’s favorite (activity) seems to be water quality, because they get to go down to the water, and put the waders on, and go into the water. Everybody loves doing that. Even on a chilly day like today they don’t care; they want to go into the water,” Goddard noted.

The watershed activity, taught by Larry Brooks of North Dakota State College Bottineau, required students to don waders and take nets into the water. The children eagerly scooped up water in rushes near the water’s edge, and brought the contents to Brooks.

“Those are some good bugs!” Brooks told a girl. “You’ve got a few snails there.”

The tiny animals were dropped into shallow pans of water.

“Oh, yeah!” shouted one boy, “That’s a leech!”

“We’ve got some minnows, fresh water snails, and these little guys here are freshwater shrimp,” Brooks said, describing the samples swimming in the pans. “These are damselflies,” he continued. “You all know what a dragon fly is, you see the blue and green ones, those are the adults, and the babies live in water.”

Scooping up a thin, brown cocoon-like pod, he continued, “and this is called a caddis fly case. This insect takes sand, and uses its spit to glue it together, and builds a little case. And see the hole that’s what it lives in, and then they come out of the water as a little moth. “

Brooks explained the purpose of the watershed lesson.

“If we protect our watershed, we protect our water. So, when it comes to determining whether the water’s polluted or not, we look at physical properties things we can see, like the turbidity; chemical properties, and then biological properties, which is what we’re doing now. So, based on the types of bugs that we’re getting, we can determine whether it’s good, fair or poor quality water.”

“So far, it looks like we’re good,” he continued. “And that’s what we’d expect in a watershed like this, where there’s some agricultural runoff, and that sort of thing.”

Glenda Fauske of the North Dakota Department of Forestry spoke about trees at her station. Passing around samples of seed cones, she described differences in pinecones and larch cones.

“Trees are much taller than all the other plants,” she explained to her group. A tree is considered to be 12 feet or taller. Shrubs have multiple woody stems, and they grow much shorter.”

North Dakota game warden Drew Johnson had samples to pass, too. “These come from an owl,” he told his group as they examined a pair of talons. “They’re illegal to have in North Dakota.”

Johnson said this was his first year at Eco Ed Day. “So far, I like interacting with the kids. It’s very important to make sure they’re aware of the laws and regulations, and what the (Department of Fish and Game) resource has to offer.”

NDSU’s Yolanda Schmidt taught students the importance of preserving rangeland on the prairie, explaining the difference in root depth for native and non-native grasses.

“I like educating kids on the importance of healthier rangeland, and what grows below the soil versus what grows above the soil,” Schmidt said.

Craig Motzko of the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service invited his group to dig into buckets of soil, determining the composition of each sample. Students ran ribbons of muddy clay between their fingers, and crumbled dark sand onto the ground.

“This station’s mostly for soil and different soil types, how it’s made up, and the composition of it,” Motzko said. “For my job, I do a wide array of things. We have education, outreach, financial assistance is our biggest thing, but we also have technical assistance, if someone calls in, and we give them advice on something, or direct them who to talk to, for example, forestry or fish and wildlife, things like that.”

Goddard predicted her students would apply the day’s lessons to their futures as farmers, or anytime they ventured outdoors.

“Instead of hearing, ‘When am I ever going to use this again?’ They will,” Goddard indicated. “Every summer (outdoors), they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember, when we went to Balta.'”

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