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 Estuary Science Education and Outreach (CRESCENDO) project is a Washington Sea Grant-funded partnership between Washington State University-Vancouver and five high schools near the estuary. The program marries scientific and educational research. Students collect surface water for chemical analysis, conduct plankton tows, record vertical profiles of temperature and salinity, and help interpret the results, which will be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Meanwhile, researchers work with each school to evaluate whether authentic scientific research affects students’ ecological knowledge and perceptions of the estuary.

Research Updates


The Columbia River Estuary supports diverse wildlife, including marine mammals and endangered salmon. Upstream watershed processes and land practices impact the health of this unique ecosystem, and these connections need to be better understood. Engaging local high school students in scientific research on this system teaches them about the research process and ecology, which in turn may shape their understanding of the connections between the health of the estuary and the human activities within its watershed. 


The project reached 290 students who completed all the fieldwork by obtaining monthly samples from five docks on the estuary over a two-year period. The students recorded their field notes and analytical data in a spreadsheet designed by WSU Vancouver scientists, and emailed these to the WSU Aquatic Ecology Lab. They also mailed zooplankton tow samples. Analysis of these data and manuscript preparation are underway as of 2018. Through this project, the students gained a better understanding of their local environment and contributed to improved scientific knowledge.