STEM project aims to help Stilly Valley recover from mudslide

DARRINGTON — What started as an experiment in outdoor education for a small, rural community has grown into a far-reaching program meant to break down barriers between the classroom and the rest of the world.

The Darrington Youth Outdoor STEM Pilot Project, launched in August 2014, began as a way to help the Stillaguamish Valley recover after the deadly 2014 Oso mudslide. The idea was to capitalize on Darrington’s strengths: the area’s abundance of natural resources and recreation spots and the young people who will live and work in the valley someday.

That project grew into the Glacier Peak Institute, an organization built with help from the Darrington School District, the town, North Counties’ Family Services and Washington State University Extension.

The pilot project involved a class of high school students. Now, every grade level in the 425-student school district is participating.

December has been a busy month.

Thirty fifth-grade students went to IslandWood, an outdoor school on Bainbridge Island, for three days to study an ecosystem different from home. Kindergartners had Forest Fridays, where teachers took them outside to observe nature. Darrington is hosting students and teachers from Tesla High School in Redmond, which specializes in science, technology, engineering and math. Tesla students plan to teach coding while Darrington students show their guests how to test water quality.

Teamwork has fueled the Glacier Peak Institute’s success, director Oak Rankin said. He tries to blur the lines between different subjects and between small towns and big cities.

“The amount of time youth spend outside has decreased,” he said. “What’s going up is screen time, and that’s true for rural youth as well as urban.”

He relies on help from organizations such as Tesla and IslandWood. IslandWood focuses on environmental stewardship and problem solving, said Sapna Sopori, director of the overnight program.

“We encourage students to take academic risks,” she said. “You don’t always have to be right.”

That’s the type of learning being promoted in Darrington, too. Students from kindergarten through high school have gone bug collecting, water sampling, eagle watching and brush planting. They’ve taken on community projects and finished lessons in the woods on the nearby archery range. It’s different from the rest of the curriculum, elementary Principal Tracy Franke said.

“It takes them from skimming the surface to getting more into the topics that really impact our community,” she said. “It also gets our kids to see that there’s a world beyond our valley and a lot of opportunities.”

Groups of middle- schoolers picked out year-long projects. Wednesdays are their work days.

Students put the most effort into their own ideas, longtime teacher Chuck Quantrille said.

“What we’ve done in the past is work on little projects, but now they’re doing things that really change the community,” he said.

Several groups are piecing together oral histories. They’re gathering stories from people who have lived in Darrington for decades to create a series of videos.

“We’re just a little tiny town compared to this huge world,” sixth-grader Olivia Slate said. “And we want people to know about our town, too.”

Two teams are building bat houses and tracking bat populations. Alex Valliere, Jorgan Sedenius, Shane Jacobs and Caleb Rivera plan to build three different types of houses and set up cameras to see which one bats prefer. Kael Lynd, Amanda Brown and Mikah Dewberry plan to put houses in different locations to see if there are more bats by the river, in the woods or near town.

Isabelle Burtenshaw, Hannah Hornick and Eden Dominquez are working with the U.S. Forest Service to try to reintroduce fishers to the wild. Fishers are small animals in the weasel family that were nearly wiped out by fur trading and habitat loss.

“They’re really adorable,” Hornick said.

“They were disappearing and we’re wanting to know where they’re at,” Burtenshaw added.

Another group got a grant to buy a robotics kit. “You have to do math and science and reading to build a robot,” sixth-grader Elizabeth Marsh said.

Seventh-grader Darin Sedenius and his friends are working on adapting a gas-powered go-kart to run off solar power. He’s learning about motors, batteries and converters as he rounds up supplies.

Teacher Cameron Ross shifts gears on “STEM days” from instructor to sounding board. He encourages students to choose their own questions and find the answers, he said.

Moving forward, Rankin plans to start more after-school activities. He wants students to see themselves as scientists, engineers, artists and adventurers.

“The world around them can be a world-class classroom,” he said. “It’s really an empowering model when you interact with a world you didn’t realize was there until you started playing with it as a scientist.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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