Mild-mannered Baton Rouge hydrologist turns into a ‘rock star’ whenever he visits Westdale Heights’ fourth graders _lowres

Advocate staff photo by AMY WOLD -- Dennis Demcheck, supervisory hydrologist with the USGS Lower Mississippi-Gulf Water Science Center in Baton Rouge, starts taking questions from the fourth graders at Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School after his presentation on hydrology and flood science.

Dennis Demcheck doesn’t look like much of a rock star, but you wouldn’t know it by the welcome he gets as he walks into a classroom jammed with more than 60 fourth-graders at Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School.

For the past four years, Demcheck has been making almost monthly visits to talk about his passion for birds, whether it’s the owl pictures he taught them to draw or the bird feeders the classroom keeps just outside their windows.

“He is just fabulous and the kids just love it,” said fourth-grade teacher Pam Fry. The students, who have nicknamed him “Bird Man,” have folders filled with pictures of birds they drew after Demcheck got them paying attention to the wildlife around them.

“It’s something that will last for the rest of their lives,” Fry said.

On Wednesday, however, Demcheck was bringing his day job to the students as a supervisory hydrologist with the Lower Mississippi-Gulf Water Science Center in Baton Rouge.

For almost an hour, Demcheck told the students about water testing, flooding and hydrology as a career, generating a host of questions from the students, ranging from photos he showed of Hurricane Katrina aftermath — before these students were born — to the water monitoring the center did for the recent Bonnet Carre Spillway opening.

As this is a class of mostly 9- and 10-year-olds, a popular question concerned the possibilities and consequences of falling off a bridge while the hydrologists are taking water samples. Not very likely, he answered again and again.

To illustrate the emphasis on safety they undertake during water monitoring, Demcheck brought in one of the small, inflatable life vests they wear when out over the water. With one tug of the inflation tag, a small bang and the vest instantly filled up to the joy of the students, marking one of the reasons the youngsters look forward to his visits: They never know what to expect.

During a previous visit, each student had drawn an owl, but Demcheck took it a step further and, using photo-editing software, placed pictures of the students’ heads atop the bodies of their owls for a keepsake.

The students loved it and couldn’t wait to show classroom visitors the results.

On Wednesday, the questions continued to rain down on Demcheck about the new topic, flooding.

Mohammad Odeh asked how long it took to learn that the Mississippi River flood was on its way.

Haoqi Zhang asked if water pollution makes his job harder.

Not harder, but sometimes rewarding.

Torian Dent asked why they study the lines left on houses by Hurricane Katrina’s flood.

It helps define what happened during the flood and can help in preventing something similar happening in the future, Demcheck said.

When the equipment is in the water, do they have to watch out for marine life? asked Marvin Dotson.

The equipment they use isn’t very large and fish just swim around it, Demcheck said.

One of the biggest cheers went up when Demcheck answered a student about how much money he made as a hydrologist, only to be followed by a collective disappointed groan when he said that was per year, not per week.

After the talk, students in Fry’s classroom flocked around Demcheck, wanting to show them their new bird art and even get him to autograph their project folders.

“They love him,” Fry said. “He’s like a rock star.”

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.