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Wednesday, April 1, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Confluence Project lets science students get outdoors

MOUNT SPOKANE STATE PARK – Cass Hansen’s head just crested the top of a snow pit that she and other Post Falls High School students dug on Wednesday.

The snow depth was 161 centimeters, almost as tall as Hansen’s height of 5 feet 3 inches.

Digging through the first couple feet of snow was easy for the honors biology students, but they soon hit layers of harder, crustier material.

“There’s a whole history under our feet,” Becky Rittenburg, a University of Idaho graduate student, told the students.

Rittenburg helped them identify different crystal layers in Mount Spokane’s snowpack and measure the water content of each layer. The students will use that data to calculate how much water will flow into local lakes and streams this summer. The work is part of the Confluence Project, a partnership between UI and The Lands Council, whose goal is getting students outdoors and exposing them to field research.

“So many schools don’t have budgets for science field trips,” said Kat Hall, The Lands Council’s conservation programs director. “We want the students to be physically active while they’re learning about the natural environment.”

The Confluence Project is funded through a National Science Foundation grant. High school students from St. Maries and Lake City in Coeur d’Alene are also doing water-related field work through the project.

Cindy Rust teaches the sophomore honors biology classes at Post Falls. Without the Confluence Project, Rust said she wouldn’t be able to take 50 kids on research outings.

Earlier in the school year, her students tested water quality at a tributary of Twin Lakes near Rathdrum and planted 200 trees for watershed restoration. They also toured Coeur d’Alene’s wastewater treatment plant and they’re working on independent research projects to present at a Youth Water Summit at UI in April.

For Wednesday’s outing, the students hiked a mile in snowshoes to the survey area, with the trail gaining 500 feet in elevation. Hiking above 5,000 feet left some students out of breath.

“My family’s not very outdoorsy, so this is totally new ground to me,” said Emily Danforth, who was getting her first experience walking in snowshoes.

The hike also included driving rain, which Steve Christensen, the park’s manager, seized upon as a teaching moment.

“There’s no bad weather, just bad equipment,” he told the students. “If you wore cotton today, you’ll be sorry. Cotton in the winter is a poor choice.”

Deavan Tristan wore knee-length shorts for the three-hour field trip. “It’s cold, but I think I’ll have a good time,” the 16-year-old said.

The Post Falls students did their snow survey work at Mount Spokane because it’s in the watershed that feeds Twin Lakes.

“We want them to recognize that 75 to 80 percent of Idaho’s water comes from its snowpack,” Hall said. “The snow they’re standing on will become the water they fish in or swim in next summer.”

Even if the students don’t pursue careers in science, they’ll have a better understanding of how scientific research is conducted and a greater appreciation of the natural world, said Audrey Squires, a UI graduate student who is part of the Confluence Project.

“In my idealistic way, I like to think that could change the world,” she said.

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