Students look at macroinvertebrates.

Through a partnership with Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) fourth graders across the district and county are learning about salmon, their habitat and what they can do to be better stewards of the environment.

“The fourth graders that we teach through our Students for Salmon program are representative of the next generation of environmental stewards,” said AmeriCorps Environmental Education Associate Sydney Wilson. “If there is going to be a shift in the relationship humans have with the environment, we have to start with educating the children about why it is important to do so. Gaining knowledge is hopefully the first step that will inspire students to carry on the important work of taking care of our lands and waterways.”

The Students for Salmon three-part program, which is offered at no cost, begins with classroom instruction that explains the different types of salmon, what makes their habitat in our local watershed healthy, and how pollution and other factors can impact salmon populations. During these lessons students have the chance to share their questions and ideas with NSEA staff. The program also provides teachers with Next Generation Science Standards supported curriculum to continue lessons and reinforce learning.

The second part of the program is a field trip to a creek in their watershed; if possible, within a mile of the participating school. On Nov. 8, for Birchwood Elementary School fourth graders in Mr. Burns’ class, this was just a short walk to Squalicum Creek Park. During this field trip, students learned more about Willow Spring, the stream that feeds into Squalicum Creek, and what they could do to protect it.

“We try to have the students visit a creek that is local to them so they feel connected with it,” said NSEA Environmental Education intern Ben Peterson. “This way students become stewards of their environment, maybe even before they understand what that means.”

Other local creeks Bellingham Public Schools students work on include Connelly Creek, Fever Creek, Padden Creek and Whatcom Creek.

During the field trip, three stations are set up for the students: a water quality station, a macroinvertebrate station and a native plant/invasive plant station. Students spend 30 minutes at each station. At the water quality station they learn how to identify if a stream is healthy and how to test the water for parameters such as temperature and levels of dissolved oxygen. At the macroinvertebrate station they learn about different types of macroinvertebrates and how they are vital to the salmon life-cycle, and can indicate pollution levels of the water. At the native plant/invasive plant station they spend time learning about how plants in the riparian zone can help or hinder stream health.

“Salmon are a keystone species, which means they are so crucial to the health of many other animals, and even forest habitat,” said NSEA Education Program Coordinator, Nathan Zabel. “Students who live in this region are impacted by salmon and the effect salmon have on the ecosystem, which is why I think it is important to teach fourth graders about this important species and the role it plays in their lives.”

Zabel went on to explain that everyday decisions and actions of the fourth graders can have an impact on salmon, in both positive and negative ways.

During the Squalicum Creek Park field trip students planted 30 trees to help keep the stream cold, clean and clear or the three C’s the students learn about regarding salmon habitat health. Last year in Bellingham, students at both public and private schools, removed over 2,000 pounds of invasive vegetation.

“One of the lasting themes of our program is that the actions students take make a difference for salmon and their habitat,” Zabel said. “Actions like littering and not picking up after dogs negatively impact crucial salmon habitat, while actions like teaching others about salmon, or taking shorter showers, or turning the water off while brushing teeth positively impact salmon. Making more of those positive choices, especially on large scales, can really influence salmon habitat and therefore influence salmon populations. Students and their families have the ability to make a difference, and we love to work with them to benefit our environment.”

The NSEA Students for Salmon program concludes with a post field trip discussion back in the classroom. Students have this time to reflect on the ways they can help salmon in their daily lives. However, Zabel said he thinks the best way to keep the learning alive is to encourage kids to spend time outside and remind them they can all be scientists.

“We re-enforce this idea repeatedly in our program, and encourage students to make observations, record what they are seeing, and be curious, just like scientists are,” Zabel said. “In addition, I think spending time outside builds a connection with the natural world, and leads to an increased desire to protect that natural world. Spending time outside can be a very meaningful way to connect with and appreciate the beauty and importance of the various Pacific Northwest ecosystems.”

For people who want to learn more about NSEA, the work they are doing or to get involved visit their website at



  1. It would be great to acknowledge how this project is funded, a combination of private donors, local businesses, as well as state and federal grants.

  2. A great follow up would be to have students bring in photos of what is helping the stream (such as recycling bins and trees) and what isn’t (such as oil from cars and dirt going into catch basins). Then they can brainstorm how they can kindly and effectively stop the bad stuff and encourage the good stuff.

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