Student-conducted Columbia estuary research

Columbia River Estuary Science Education and Outreach (CRESCENDO): a Landscape-scale University–High School Partnership Integrating Scientific and Educational Research

High school students gather water, plankton and hydrographic data in the Columbia River estuary, to learn about and assess relative effects of cumulative watershed drainage and local factors such as sewage outflows.

Principal Investigator

Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, Washington State University

Co-Principal Investigators

Stephen Bollens, Washington State University

Tamara Holmlund Nelson, Washington State University


The Columbia River’s 146-mile estuary is one of the largest in the nation; only the Missouri–Mississippi system carries more water. Rapid population growth has changed land use in the Columbia estuary’s watershed in ways that may affect coastal ecosystems. It is critical to understand whether and how nutrients and organisms from upstream contribute to habitat degradation, eutrophication and the spread of invasive species. It is also important to determine how participating in authentic scientific research affects students’ ecological knowledge and outlook. CRESCENDO represents a rare marriage of scientific and educational research. For two years, students at five high schools along the estuary will gather water samples and plankton tows and collect hydrographic data. They’ll help measure nutrient, phytoplankton and zooplankton levels (including harmful algae and invasive copepods) and determine whether these increase steadily as the river descends or reflect local conditions such as land use, wastewater discharge and coastal upwelling. Researchers will then gauge what the students have learned about science and stewardship.