Channeling Water Connections
Extension Educator Brings Water Lessons to Life for Students of All Ages
On the banks of the Spokane River, Jim Ekins can hear excited murmurs as he pulls a crayfish from the water. Students gather in to get a closer look at the ecosystem of their hometown.
“A lot of these students don’t come from a background like mine,” Ekins said. “Watching them open their eyes and seeing that light bulb go on over their head? That’s really powerful.”
As the area water educator with University of Idaho Extension, Ekins’ goal is to spark curiosity. Whether it’s here at the river with dozens of high school students, leading a stormwater erosion protection class with contractors, sharing professional development with teachers or guiding one of his summer interns, he hopes to inspire as much as educate.
“Jim is one of the best mentors I have ever had,” said Toni Eells, ’21, a 2019 Extension intern. “He’s fantastic about explaining concepts in a way that make sense for any knowledge level, and he’s always happy, kind and willing to help.”
In His Nature
Before he could walk, Ekins’ parents had him floating the rivers of Florida in a canoe and splashing in the Atlantic Ocean. Soon after, he was learning the basics of land management as a volunteer with the Florida Trail Association. These days marked the beginning of a lifelong love for all things outdoors and ultimately set him down the path that would lead to becoming a UI Extension educator.
“People have questions and communities have needs,” Ekins said. “It is our role to connect people to the knowledge within the university.”
One of the avenues for sharing that knowledge is The Confluence Project (TCP), a year-long program connecting hundreds of North Idaho high school students with hands-on water science.
“I get to show students that science doesn’t just happen with beakers and a lab coat,” Ekins said. “You can be a scientist who spends your days going into streams or the woods and collecting data.”
Passing It On
When she was a high school student, Eells studied the impact of stormwater on her hometown of St. Maries during the independent research portion of TCP.
“That sparked a curiosity about water that carried through my college years,” Eells said. “Now I work as an environmental technician while getting my master’s degree with a focus in water quality. TCP helped steer my life in this direction.”
Through TCP field trips and the water science fair, students like Emma Arman, ’21, also experienced those lightbulb moments.
“The Confluence Project pulled me in,” Arman said. “That’s when I realized I wanted to be involved in environmental science all the time.”
“I got to go all over Idaho leading camps and teaching kids about water quality and the aquifer,” Arman said. “Jim made all of these experiences possible and connected me with professional contacts from Spokane to Boise. You can’t get any of that in the classroom.”
Arman and Eells are gems in the rock collection of Ekins’ career, but he says some of his most important work is seen in more subtle ways.
“The students we get are bright, motivated and ready to learn, and we challenge them,” Ekins said. “Even if they don’t go into science, we want them to be science literate. One way or another, they’re going to help make decisions for the world, and it feels great to be creating stewards of our lands.”
Article by Katie Marshall, University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene
Published November 2021