High School Students Win National Awards with GIS

Seaside High School developed a Coastal Studies and Technology Center to get students interested in the environment. The project has since led to a $4 million grant and an award from President Clinton.

by / June 30, 1996
Oregon high school teacher Mike Brown formed the Coastal Studies and Technology Center in 1992 to provide opportunities for students to study GIS and other technologies while participating in environmental projects conducted by state and local government. Barely two years into the program, the center, its founder and students were chosen by President Clinton and the EPA as the National Educational Model Program for 1994, and won the EPA's Region 10 President's Environmental Youth Award. These honors included White House invitations to give presentations to the president, vice president and the director of the EPA.

Today, the Coastal Studies and Technology Center, on the small campus (550 students) of Seaside High School, is a nonprofit corporation managed by the Seaside School District, the community, the State University at Portland, and Clatsop Community College. In addition to serving as a research and development center for students, faculty and the larger community, the center provides science programs that emphasize modern technology applications in coastal and watershed studies. Hands-on assignments include GIS modeling, tabular and spatial data collection, GPS mapping and video editing, among others. In addition to encouraging individual GIS projects, the center provides opportunities for students to take part in regional and local environmental projects conducted by government agencies and other public entities.

"Initially, we wanted to have a vehicle that would enable our students to participate in scientific projects that were taking place in our own community," Brown said. "We also wanted the center to be a base for scientists temporarily working in this area so that our students could participate in that work. By forming partnerships and connections, we've been able to establish that."

Brown's ideas quickly led to the center's involvement in an environmental study of the lower Columbia River. Through connections established with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) and the Columbia River Estuary Study Task Force (CREST), students from the center and other schools helped to determine if removal of a section of the south jetty at the mouth of the lower Columbia River would restore the ecosystem of Trestle Bay.

According to CREST Director Jon Graves, years of sediment had built up around the jetty and formed a 600-acre lagoon in Trestle Bay, separating it from the Columbia River. "Water was going back and forth, but not large fish and crabs. One of the proposals was to open a 500-foot section of the jetty, allowing the tide to flush out the built-up sediment and restore salmon, crab and bird habitats."

Eric Kranzush, now a junior at Seaside, worked on the project in his freshman year. "We took field notes on temperature and salinity in the tidal marsh around Trestle Bay, and classified sedimentation samples and benthic [bottom-dwelling] invertebrates provided by the NMFS. CREST gave us aerial photos and satellite imagery. We entered data collected from field and lab work directly into ArcView, then built layers of different tidal influences over the satellite image. We did a lot of multiple-layer images for the NMFS."

Graves said Seaside students also recorded vegetation plots with GPS, and used aerial photos to do salt-marsh mapping of Trestle Bay. "As a result of that study, the jetty was opened, the section taken out and moved about 200 feet north into the river. In 1997, the students will be back again, looking at benthic invertebrate use in Trestle Bay to see if removal of the jetty has changed the communities out there."

Asked about the quality of data provided by the center, Graves responded, "They do very good work. For example, Oregon's land-use planning requires every estuary to have an inventory done on all the physical, biological and chemical aspects. The inventories that the Coastal Studies and Technology Center did for the Necanicum River Estuary are now the adopted inventory of the Clatsop County land-use plan. The center has a long track record of doing quality work that is adopted by state agencies."

Kranzush pointed out that it was for the Trestle Bay Project that the center received the 1994 President's Environmental Youth Award. "When the award was presented, Vice President Gore was really impressed that freshmen and sophomore high-school students were interested in using computer models to keep salmon alive and improve their habitat."

White House recognition has opened more opportunities for the center, said Brown. "It has given us more credibility to hook into other projects going on out there. For example, we have become a founding partner in the Marine Environmental Research Training Laboratory in Astoria, along with Clatsop Community College, Portland State University and the Oregon Graduate Institute. Getting that lab going enabled us to get a $4 million Navy research grant that our students will be able to take part in. That grant opened up major funding opportunities for us. My old funding level was about $1,000 a year. Just this one grant is about 125 years worth of funding."

Brown explained that the grant is mostly interested in the dynamics of the Columbia River Estuary and the near-shore environment. "Our role will be in tidal and river-flow monitoring; setting up remote monitoring stations, collecting data on tide salinity, temperature, and so forth. We will process some of the data here, then move it along to a research scientist who will use it to develop computer and GIS models of the Columbia River Estuary."

Center students are currently involved with several projects, including a Tsunami Inundation Study with the city of Seaside, the Oregon Graduate Institute (OGI), and the Department of Geological and Mineral Industries. The department is providing the center and OGI with Northwest coastal data from a 1964 Alaska earthquake. According to Kranzush, the students are coordinating their efforts to model damage that would result if a tsunami struck Seaside.

The center is also doing an ongoing project with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) analyzing ground water pollution in county drinking wells. Another project is a watershed enhancement study with the city and the DEQ. The project calls for modeling the environmental impact of proposed commercial development along the local Neawana River, and creating watershed enhancement models to offset such a possibility. According to Kranzush, the DEQ will provide most of the data. Students will collect some field data for incorporation into an ArcView database that will be sent to the city and the DEQ.

Brown, who has also written a GIS curriculum with help from ESRI, CREST and an EPA education grant, said, "sometimes we have projects at the center level. Other times, students have their own projects that they want to start and keep going. We get a chance to test out a lot of ideas that have impact both in the community and the classroom, and those are really powerful things for us, especially being able to apply GIS to these projects. The process gives students a chance to look at the environment in totally new ways."

Kranzush, who is considering careers in environmental and chemical engineering, said this has been an enlightening experience. "When we worked on the Trestle Bay Project, one of the things you noticed was how much influence tides have on the marshes and the land around them. I wasn't really familiar with how tides worked before, but this project allowed me to see how they clean out the bay and improve the habitat. These studies also help you to see how the environment is affected by human factors -- pollution, chemical processes, deforestation. You can see by doing the modeling what the effects of different industrial activities will be. Some of it is pretty shocking."

Commenting on the scope of environmental projects for the center, Brown said, "the kinds and amounts of work that need to be done in this region are immense. I see the role of the center as continuing to be a broker, finding opportunities for students, teachers and community members to be involved in this work. There is a lot to do. We are still analyzing water in the drinking wells, and I just heard that some grant money came through on that."

Kranzush continues to be involved with center projects. "Mr. Brown had a great idea; the district loves it and so do the kids. Hands-on research with government agencies makes students actually feel like they are doing something, instead of just sitting at a desk, doing book work. Like in the Trestle Bay Project, there was a result, they did move the jetty, and kids are able to see that."