Gypsum Creek Middle School STEM students win national competition | VailDaily.com

Gypsum Creek Middle School STEM students win national competition

GYPSUM — In the heat of the 2016 election campaigns, 40 Gypsum Creek Middle School STEM (that's science, technology, engineering and math) students successfully completed a project measuring pollution in Gore Creek in East Vail.

They planted in native riparian areas, counted different types of macroinvertebrates and conducted tests to determine the water chemistry in two different areas along the creek.

Macroinvertebrates are spineless creatures and the students counted them, during an election year, without cracking a single political joke — at least none that their teacher Katie Lunde could hear.

"I am just a STEM nerd. No politics," Lunde said, smiling.

“The project’s goal is to create an influential environmental action that makes an impact and extends beyond the local community.”Katie LundeTeacher, Gypsum Creek Middle School

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They apparently did great work, because the kids from Gypsum won the 2016 Lexus Eco Challenge's national competition in the land and water category.

The idea of Lunde's STEM students working on a clean water unit stemmed from her spending much of her summer in professional development, focusing on STEM and our watershed in Eagle County. After partnering with organizations across the valley, and working with her eighth-grade STEM students, their community project in East Vail was nationally recognized.

"We would not have been able to do this without the support of Principal David Russell and the school district," Lunde said.

Model My Watershed

Lunde was working the room at the Colorado Education Initiative Conference in Snowmass, and pitched the idea for the water quality education unit's supplies and transportation to Lockheed Martin, Oracle, Boeing and several other companies interested in STEM education.

Her students completed their unit on the engineering design process in the fall, and came up with their own ideas to clean up the pollution in Gore Creek. After planting two different riparian areas, Lunde's students did more classroom work and compared Gypsum Creek to Gore Creek.

Then they entered the Lexus Eco Challenge, a national scholarship competition for students in grades six through 12. Her students won for their community involvement in an environmental problem, earning $10,000 in scholarships for the students and school.

"The money was the not the biggest win though. The biggest win was bringing awareness to the community that clean water is an issue in our watershed and we need to be a part of the solution," Lunde said.

Environmental Wolves

The Gypsum Creek Middle School STEM students dubbed themselves "The Environmental Wolves" — the school's mascot is the Wolves. They describe their national title-winning project like this:

"Do you know what macroinvertebrates are? Environmental Wolves do. Led by teacher advisor Katie Lunde, this team studied what might be causing a local decline of pollution-intolerant macroinvertebrates — animals without backbones, and specifically the aquatic insects in their nearby Gore Creek," the description reads.

"They discovered that non-point source pollution, and in general the town's human population and development, has disrupted the local ecosystem over the years. They're continuing to collect data, share their findings with the greater community and plant native vegetation on the stream banks each fall," the description continues.

"It turned out to be a very successful project, and we look forward to continuing with our local partners," Lunde said.

"The project's goal is to create an influential environmental action that makes an impact and extends beyond the local community," Lunde explained. "In our class we talk about global issues, and clean water is a global issue, then we bring these issues we discuss back to what is going on in our own community."

Impaired waterway

Gore Creek in East Vail is an important part of Eagle County's watershed, and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment a few years ago listed Gore Creek as an impaired waterway. Lunde's students wanted to help improve the creek's health, and they could monitor the effects year after year of planting in more native riparian areas along the creek. The plants' roots suck up pollutants before they can get in to the creek. Students found that the number of pollution-intolerant macroinvertebrates numbers were low in the areas tested. Fish eat macroinvertebrates, and if the number of stoneflies, caddisflies and mayflies are dwindling, then the whole system suffers.

Lexus Pursuit of Potential

Nancy Hubbell was with Lexus when they launched the Eco Challenge 10 years ago.

Lexus had just introduced the RX, their hybrid SUV, and wanted to support some environmental programs.

Kids, they decided, are where they would focus their attention. The campaign was dubbed "The Pursuit of Potential." The goal was to empower children to change their communities and the world at large.

"They are impacting their community and coming to understand how it is part of the larger world," Hubbell said.

Hubbell has kids in middle school and will tell you with great enthusiasm how much the Lexus Eco Challenge beats Googling information to paste onto yet another tri-fold display board at yet another science fair.

Instead of yet another chore, teachers such as Lunde built the Eco Challenge into their curriculum.

"It's hands-on and the kids are enthusiastic about it. Anything that sparks a student's imagination is time well spent," Hubbell said. "Next year, we hope that more schools will participate. It benefits the kids, the teachers, the school and the community. Lexus firmly believes the potential of kids to change their world."

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.