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For Rainier Beach High Students, Class In Session Along Fast-Changing Elwha River

Rainier Beach High School senior Puja Niroula hopes to study science in college. But she's still a bit squeamish when it comes to netting tiny bugs from a creek bed in Olympic National Forest.

"I wonder if this is poisonous. Do you think so?" Niroula, 18, asked another student with more than a hint of trepidation as she picked larval mayflies from the net.

Niroula and 25 other biology students from the south Seattle school are spending this week conducting experiments on a fast-changing ecosystem at the heart of one of the century's most significant environmental projects: the Elwha River.

For the past two and a half years, the Elwha Valley has been the site of the largest hydroelectric dam removal project in the nation's history. With that work nearly complete, the National Parks Service is now overseeing a massive effort to restore the ecosystem that existed before the dam's construction in 1910.

The impacts are already visible, and Rainier Beach High School biology teacher Louise Wong has made sure her students can see them firsthand. This year is her third time bringing students to an area nature camp run by the nonprofit group NatureBridge.

"My experience is richer because I do get to see this change [in the Elwha] over time," she said.

When Wong first brought a group two years ago, Lake Aldwell, the reservoir behind the first Elwha River dam to go, had only recently drained.

"By the time we went there, the river was really muddy. It was really dirty," remembered Niroula, who also came with Wong to the Elwha River two years ago as a sophomore. "We wanted to know if [the river] was healthy or unhealthy."

But last year, the first dam was completely gone, and Wong walked around with students on the dry bed of the former Lake Aldwell.

Wong says the state's high school biology standards require her students to know how to design and conduct experiments. But letting her students test the water oxygen levels or the acidity of a river changing as quickly as the Elwha is particularly unique.

"This is what I'm looking for — a relevant Washington state experience to integrate ecology concepts," she said.

Four in five students at Rainier Beach High School qualify as low-income. Wong has used state funds, PTSA donations, scholarships from NatureBridge and other grant funds to pay for her various trips to the camp.

Wong currently doesn't know how she'll cover the trip's cost beyond next year, when state funding runs out. She's unsure whether money from a School Improvement Grant that Rainier Beach recently won could fund a trip two years from now.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.