Science, Water, and Basketball at Campbell Farm: Tales from an Alternative Spring Break

By Sally Landefeld

With finals in the rear-view mirror, most University of Washington (UW) students can think of little else but those two magical words that have been teasing them all winter: Spring Break.  While my friends took off for Cabo, slept in past noon, or backpacked on the Olympic Peninsula, I climbed into a UW van destined for a decidedly more unusual spring break location.  Armed with sleeping bags, grocery lists, and lesson plans, I joined a group of UW students traveling to some of Washington’s less populated areas as part of the UW Project Pipeline’s Alternative Spring Break program.

Photo Credit: Zihan Cao, University of Washington

Project Pipeline’s Alternative Spring Break program offers UW students a chance to contribute to and learn from rural and tribal communities around Washington.  By spending a week in K-12 classrooms across the state, participants have the opportunity to immerse themselves in a new learning environment and cultivate an interest in science in young students.  This year, the ASB program sent UW students to Curlew, Oroville, Brewster, Mattawa, Herrah, Omak, and Forks (among others).  My van headed to Campbell Farm in Wapato, WA, located in the heart of the Yakama Indian Reservation.

For the past quarter, our fearless Project Pipeline team leaders helped us understand how to interact, communicate, and share our science knowledge with middle school and high school students.  Now, we wanted to give these young students an opportunity to connect faces and personalities with a place they had always heard about: the University of Washington.

Along with twenty-two other UW students, I spent afternoons at the farm with a group of middle school students from the Yakama Tribal School (YTS).  During a preliminary visit to Campbell Farm over winter, the students had surprised us with their excitement, curiosity, engagement, and thirst for science knowledge.  The first day was no exception.  The students showed up that first afternoon eager to learn and filled with all kinds of questions.

On Monday, we taught lessons about the structure and properties of water. Pure joy and excitement crossed the young students’ faces when they were able to answer questions about the energy, attractive and repellent forces, and polar charge of water.  We flew through our lesson plan, teaching more than we had planned.

On Tuesday, we introduced the concept of biomass into our conversation about water.  We examined roots under the microscope and started to think about the role that plants play in the water cycle.  On Wednesday, we considered water on a walk around the farm, discussing how the rain, wind, orchard soil, and animal manure were all related to the water cycle.  Students practiced making field observations by recording what they learned in their scientific notebooks.

A diagram of the water cycle by Kwalani from Yakama Nation Tribal School depicting solar radiation, condensation, precipitation, freezing, snowmelt runoff, infiltration, evapotranspiration, groundwater flow, evaporation, and surface runoff.

Using those observations, we compiled a diagram of as many water-cycle processes as we could think of.  We asked the students to bring a little creativity to their science by drawing posters to depict the water cycle, illustrating at least three major processes.

On Thursday, the final day of our program, students used plastic water bottles and lights powered by a small, rotating attachment to build mini-wind turbines, which provided them a brief introduction into the world of civil engineering.

After a week of talking science, we needed a way to decompress.  I’d heard repeatedly throughout the week: “Basketball is life on the reservation.”  So naturally, the students put us through our paces with a few games of Bump or Knock-Out, where players line up and race to make a shot before the person in front of them.  I saw just how true this “Basketball is life” statement really was; the students kicked our butts on the court.

At the end of the last day, parents and siblings of the young students came to celebrate the week with a feast of traditional Indian fry bread, salmon, corn, and a deer dumpling stew.  The students proudly presented their water-cycle posters and performed a water cycle skit, where each student played the role of water molecule, to an audience of loved ones.  Connecting with both the students and their families was a powerful experience for us as instructors.  We were amazed to find that we had shared not only our science knowledge in the past week, but also our hearts.

Acknowledgements: This project is supported by NASA and Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline. UW Project Pipeline sponsors include Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, The Seattle Times, AT&T, Banner Bank, BECU.