Outdoor classrooms welcome first students

Students in Olympic College professor Rich Ellison’s biology class take inventory of native plants in Three Springs, an undeveloped parkland which the county is using for educational purposes.  - Photo by Jesse Beals
Students in Olympic College professor Rich Ellison’s biology class take inventory of native plants in Three Springs, an undeveloped parkland which the county is using for educational purposes.
— image credit: Photo by Jesse Beals

A group of 24 Olympic College students strolled down one of Nels Nelson Road’s hills north of the Fairgrounds and suddenly turned into the woods. There were no signs, no gate, but the students made their way into Three Springs, a 10-acre pristine forest parcel that belongs to the county parks department.

“It’s not really a park,” said Derek Schruhl, chair of the Barker Creek Stewardship Committee and an OC student. “I’d rather refer to it as an outdoor classroom.”

The emphasis for Three Springs and a handful of other parcels, adding up to about 50 acres of land in the Barker Creek corridor, is to keep them secluded.

The Barker Creek Stewardship Committee intends to make the sites a destination for local teachers taking their students on hands-on field trips.

OC biology professor Rich Ellison’s class was the first to venture into Three Springs with tape measures and lab sheets in hand.

Schruhl, who is enrolled in Ellison’s Biology 203 course, arranged the field trip and said he hopes it is the first of many.

In midst of the mature forest, which Ellison estimated was last logged 100 years ago, he gave instructions to his class to record the percent of cover of the tree canopy overhead and the shrub and herb plant layers on the ground.

“This is particularly nice because when I look around, there are hardly any non-native species,” Ellison said.

His biology course is now in its ecology unit.

“What better thing to do than learn about the local ecology that’s here,” he said after he set up his students for collecting data along three 30-meter lines through the forest.

Three Springs has a high plant bio-diversity, wetlands and uplands, and a salmon-bearing stream borders the property. Ellison’s students were not collecting the data merely as part of a lesson plan, their study will create a baseline for other students exploring the Barker Creek outdoor classrooms.

“The biologists who are being trained here,” Ellison said looking down to the wetlands where his students were busy measuring the circumferences of trees, “some of them will go into ecology, they would have seen what it’s like (in the field). The textbook and the real world are two very different things.”

Ellison said he hopes more students and teachers will follow his class’ footsteps into the woods. However, the stewardship committee should “crisscross the whole site with trails,” he added pointing to the vegetation his students had stomped over on their way in.

Eventually, there will be pathways, Schruhl said. The purely educational purpose of the outdoor classrooms means they will be kept as pristine as possible, he added.

After about 90 minutes of field work, Schruhl and his classmates walked down to another one of the sites. That Outdoor Classroom, near the LDS church on Nels Nelson Road, has been logged much more recently — about 10 years ago.

Ellison instructed his students to make their observations looking for signs of disruption by man. They recorded many more non-native plant species like the Himalayan blackberry.

“It’s great to have areas to learn hands-on and it’s good that they’re trying to conserve this area because it’s a salmon stream,” said Hillary Eichler, an environmental science major.

It was a trip to Barker Creek two years ago in a Bremerton High School marine biology class that hooked Eichler into the environmental science track. Wednesday she was glad to once again collect field data from the Barker Creek watershed, so that future students can compare notes with hers.

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