Despite being born two decades after the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, Vancouver iTech Preparatory freshmen are at the forefront of researching the blast that ripped across 230 square miles of forest and claimed 57 lives. Students in Tom Wolverton’s biology class are working with peers from five other Washington high schools to analyze the volcano’s past and its present journey toward recovery.
In September, 29 iTech freshmen embarked on a two-day research trip to the blast zone. Mount St. Helens Institute Director of Operations Ray Yurkewycz and Wolverton, president of the institute’s board of directors, organized the trip for high schools four years ago.
“I wanted a unique opportunity that allowed students to experience what it is like to be a Mount St. Helens ecology researcher,” said Wolverton. “I wanted them to experience the camaraderie at field research camps, as well as the outdoor work that researchers do every day during the field season.” At the time, very few Mount St. Helens high school research programs existed, especially in ecology.
Subsequent grants from Washington STEM, a nonprofit that promotes science, technology, engineering and math education; Weyerhaeuser; and the U.S. Forest Service have covered much of the cost to participate. This year, iTech Prep became the only school in the district to make the trip to the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater, an educational center located just 7 miles from the crater.
Over the course of their stay, students participated in a geocaching activity and learned about field tools and techniques that they applied to aquatic and terrestrial research. “We looked at the effects of the blast on the environment,” said freshman Ben Wilgus. “Mount St. Helens is constantly growing.”
To study the current state of reclamation, teams identified current tree and shrub species and collected terrestrial data. In aquatic areas, they took water-quality samples and recorded algal slime, macroinvertebrate diversity, canopy cover and benthic layer cover.
Guiding their efforts were two professionals from the Forest Service, including monument scientist Peter Frenzen. “They treated us like professionals and expected a lot,” said freshman Janessa Higgs.
“This is authentic research,” said Wolverton. “We took the protocols that scientists used after 1980 and adjusted them to be student-friendly, but the kids basically did the same things that scientists did then to see how much life is coming back on Mount St. Helens. It’s a good form of citizen science.” According to Wolverton, the field study also aligns with Next Generation Science Standards and iTech Prep’s problem-based curriculum.
After the trip, students from all six schools com- piled their data for further analysis and exploration. In December, the project culminated at the annual Mount St. Helens High School STEM Field Study student research conference. Students presented their ideas to one another, as well as to scientists, land managers and educators from the community.
But the lessons learned on and from Mount St. Helens will last much longer as another generation carries the knowledge of the 1980 explosion into the future.