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Lesson On Water Students Turn Houseboats Into Floating Labs

Sun., May 14, 1995

Just when a group of Inchelium High School students thought they were having fun cruising up Lake Roosevelt in a couple of houseboats, they wound up in a chemistry lesson.

The fun didn’t stop, though. Not even when some biology was thrown in for good measure.

An innovative floating classroom allows high school students to do real scientific research. A day of hands-on testing is followed by a day of on-board classroom instruction and guest speakers.

The National Park Service pilot program has students gather water samples and analyze them. The results will help professional scientists monitor Lake Roosevelt water quality.

“Oh, yuck, we swim in this stuff,” Inchelium High junior Emmy Kohler groaned after seeing all the microscopic bugs in one sample.

It didn’t seem to spoil anyone’s appetite, however. The group consumed enough hamburgers at dinnertime to curl a cattle rancher’s mustache.

And no one got seasick. Kohler worried about that when her group set out last Monday from the Keller Marina, 15 miles north of Wilbur in Lincoln County. But the water was calm and the two 52-foot pontoon houseboats were as steady as a living room sofa.

The boats are the key to the program. They make it possible for up to 26 students to participate in each class - and they make it fun.

During the two-hour, 25-mile cruise between a sampling site near the Keller Marina and another at the mouth of Hawk Creek near the Seven Bays resort, the students were supposed to be looking for wildlife and anything that might affect water quality.

“Human activity isn’t all bad,” National Park Service instructor Brad Frye advised. “It depends on how it’s carried out.”

As the budding scientists motored past the old sawmill community of Lincoln and new housing developments, they seemed more interested in things that adults might foolishly call gossip. Important things such as who likes whom and who’s going to get a car.

Then Clint Desautel spotted a couple of deer and gave a holler. Chasity Watt quickly substituted those for the jumping fish she had pretended to see.

Watt wasn’t kidding when she observed correctly that murky water can block light needed for the plankton that feeds fish and other creatures at the bottom of the food chain.

Instructor Frye never had high expectations for the lists he asked the students to compile. But Inchelium High teacher Debbie Berg hinted darkly that she was taking notes and would grade her chemistry and biology students on their participation.

Some of them may have lost a few points for soaking up rays instead of taking notes, but there was no lack of industry when there were water tests to be done.

“Shake it a few more times. There’s still some purple clinging there in the middle,” Desautel said as classmate Justin Lawrence added chemicals and waited for a water sample to change colors.

“Maybe you just got purple on your glasses,” Lawrence responded to Desautel’s good-natured harassment.

“Clint is such a dork,” Watt added helpfully.

“It’s the only explanation,” Lawrence agreed.

“A few more times and that should be just right on the money,” Desautel persisted. “Yeah, I think you got it this time.”

Microscopic observations, temperature readings and tests for dissolved oxygen and water clarity were performed while the boats drifted at the sampling sites, but steadier conditions were needed for most of the tests. So the samples were kept in coolers until the boats landed for the evening at Jones Bay Campground.

There was a strict rule against swimming, but no one said anything about sand. So the first order of business after landing was to tumble on the banks and see how much grit could be deposited on the average teenager.

Then, after testing how many hamburgers the average teenager could consume, the dinner tables were turned into a laboratory. The students donned rubber gloves and protective goggles, divided into teams and applied themselves with vigor to a variety of tests on their water samples.

They checked for such things as electrical conductivity, acidity or alkalinity, nitrogen and phosphorous levels and turbidity.

“Is that good?” John Riley asked when his group found no salt in a sample.

Another group called for help when a test failed to produce any of the expected colors. So they started over.

“This is not just a classroom exercise,” National Park Service instructor Lynne Brougher had warned.

The results would be entered into a database, using a portable computer aboard the houseboats, and would be used by researchers at Washington State University and the University of Washington. The Inchelium students’ data would be compared with the work of nine other schools that will participate in this spring’s program, which ends Thursday.

All of the schools are located along Lake Roosevelt, but officials hope to add a fall program next year and include schools from Spokane and other areas. First they must find more money.

Schools, which now pay only for gasoline, may be asked to contribute more.

Dan Brown, chief “interpreter” for the Coulee Dam National Recreation Area, said this year’s trial run was financed with a $12,500 grant from the National Park Service and numerous contributions. One of the biggest was a hefty discount on the houseboats from the Colville Confederated Tribes. Tribal leaders hope Native American students will pursue careers in environmental science, Brown said.

So far, Frye said, the classes “have all been a resounding success, except that people don’t sleep at night.”

Maybe the students could be graded on how well they settle down for the night, he joked.

Only the instructors and chaperones seemed to like that idea.

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