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 gathered 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 was a Washington Sea Grant-funded partnership between Washington State University-Vancouver and five high schools near the estuary. The program married scientific and educational research. Students collected surface water for chemical analysis, conducted plankton tows, recorded vertical profiles of temperature and salinity, and helped interpret the results, which were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Meanwhile, researchers worked with each school to evaluate whether authentic scientific research affected 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 taught them about the research process and ecology, which in turn may have shaped 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 were underway as of 2018. Through this project, the students gained a better understanding of their local environment and contributed to improved scientific knowledge.