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Local Students Gain Real-World Experience in Environmental Science Course

March 2, 2023

Students walk through the snow near solar panels

On a cold, clear, winter day, high school students of Pocatello’s Ecology and Natural Resource (ENR) Management program — along with members of Idaho State University’s College of Technology — hiked up the snowy hills above Pocatello with one goal in mind: discovery.

For two years, Ryan Pitcher, the Associate Director of the ISU College of Technology Energy Systems Technology and Education Center (ESTEC) and Eric Pankau, a teacher in Idaho School District 25, have been refining a program that focuses on how technology can teach people about environmental data through real-world evidence.

“The ENR program is primarily focused on ecological concepts,” said Pankau. “However, it also focuses on the technology and careers that people are working on in today’s industries. This is why it is so beneficial to our local youth.”

The idea was developed by Pitcher and was first implemented in January 2022 when he developed a 25-hour lesson plan and began to teach Pankau’s class twice a week about topics such as: engineering notation, Ohm’s Law, how solar panels function and more. These lessons concluded with the students deploying temperature monitoring data loggers around the school and analyzing the data set a few weeks later.

“The purpose of this project is to provide students with real-world experience through project-based learning,” said Pitcher. “Students are able to experience the practical application of electronics, batteries and more in the field of environmental science.”

On December 22, 2022 the program took the next step with the deployment of a data-logging weather station in the hills above the East Fork Mink Creek Nordic Center just south of Pocatello. The custom-made, solar-powered weather station was designed by Pitcher and built/programmed by Nicole Froelich, a clinical instructor in the ISU College of Technology’s ESTEC department. Meanwhile, Pankau worked out the details with the Forest Service to allow the device to be installed by the members of the ENR — who are part of Idaho’s Career and Technical Education program, the Future Farmers of America and the Earth Club associated with Pocatello High School.

An impressive number of students braved the single digit temperatures to climb the hills and install the weather data logger. The students gained valuable experience on how to build, program, deploy and analyze environmental data — such as wind speed and direction, barometric pressure and air temperature. Students have spent the last six weeks learning the fundamentals of how electronics, renewable energy and instrumentation work while the weather station has been collecting data. Just last week, the students returned to the mountains to dismantle the station — one of the final steps in the course that ends this week.

“This project really helped put into perspective that the stuff we are doing in our class has definite real world applications,” said Gabe Eberle, who was one of the participating students. “Not only that, but I had never gone to the Nordic Center before, so it was an opportunity for me to check out a new place. Overall I think it was just nice to get outside and do something educational in a very unstructured environment with the people I had been working with in class.”

This project-based STEM experience was made possible by the collaboration between School District 25, the US Forest Service, the City of Pocatello and ESTEC — a department in the College of Technology at Idaho State University. Equipment and monetary donations from industry partners and community members were utilized to build the weather station.


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