Building Machines to Learn About Energy

Wednesdays are the best days, not because it’s downhill until the weekend, but because it’s River Classroom time! Yesterday we were back at The Wildlife Center and back to our energy curriculum.

We began by refreshing our memories- what’s the difference between a motor and a generator? How do motors work? Where does electricity come from? How does a battery work? Why is metal a good conductor? The students remembered much of this, even though we haven’t talked about it in over a month.

After discussing these energy basics, we let the kids go with one task: build something. We had assembled a demonstration- a tower with two pulleys. Students had to build a simple machine with given materials. This machine had to do something. Anything. Move a weight, go up and down, etc. Also, they were not allowed to copy our design.

Prior to beginning, students had to develop a plan and a diagram. It didn’t have to be complete, and they didn’t have to stick to it entirely, but they had to have some idea of what they were going to do. This diagram had to be checked off before they could begin working. Checking off their ideas was fun- some of them were fantastic, some had a few issues, and some had pretty big problems. Rather than correcting their plans, we let the groups have at it. Everybody made corrections to their machines over the hour they were given to work.

A student writing instructions on how to build her group’s machine.

We had different sized boards, pulleys, string, tape, hand saws, drills, nails, screws, hammers, pliers, and more. Our classroom looked like a hardware store! In the course of building, many students used these tools for the first time, and we incorporated safety instruction at the sawing and drilling tables.

A group decides which materials to use.
A groups of students assembles the base of their machine

Our groups did a fantastic job taking turns- everybody got a chance to get their hands dirty. We also noticed several groups voting on designs in situations where two group members had different ideas. Teamwork!

This guy can fix anything!
Another group assembling their machine

All in all, everybody had a great time, although after an hour a few groups were a little rushed for time. In the end, everybody came up with a plan for a working machine.

Final assembly, with the clock counting down!

  Several groups demonstrated their machines for the class.

Students show off a working crane!

As part of their reflections, students had to describe a practical application for their machine. Here are a few excerpts:

“If it was bigger it could be used as a crane.”

“I would use this in a restaurant [to deliver food] ”

“Our invention could be used in building areas to move large objects short distances.”

“This could be used to deliver items from place to place and stop pollution by carrying people and items instead of cars.”

All of the simple machines had great practical uses. If these kids are the future, we’ll be just fine!


Upcoming Event: CoCoRaHS night!

Join us at The Wildlife Center on November 19 for an official CoCoRaHS training! CoCoRaHS stands for Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, & Snow Network, and this network of volunteer precipitation observers are very important to weather forecasters, drought monitors, and researchers.

CoCoRaHS_adPrecipitation is a tricky thing to measure. Rain gauges are the best, despite problems such as rain splashing out of the gauge, but we can’t cover the globe with rain gauges, and it’s very difficult to put rain gauges in the ocean! Radar can be used to estimate rainfall, but that method also has problems, especially in northern New Mexico where the radar beam’s lowest scan level can be above 7000 ft, or east of the Sandia where the mountains block the beam.

The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite was the first precipitation radar in space, and for the last 17 years it has been measuring rainfall. Unfortunately, this satellite covers a large area and can’t see all of the rain that falls. We can use other satellites to try to fill in the gaps, with marginal to great success, depending on the situation. In my graduate school research, I discovered that our satellite estimates can be quite different from what radar and rain gauges show in the southwest U.S. I really needed more rain gauges!

Special rain gauges are necessary to be an official CoCoRaHS observer. This is because the data needs to be comparable. TWC will be ordering rain gauges for those interested in participating, and we’re getting a bulk discount so they will cost around $26.

Please join TWC, our New Mexico State Climatologist, and the National Weather Service in Albuquerque for this very special citizen science night!


Geology Rocks!

Our second topic with Ms. Berryhill’s Earth Science class from McCurdy High School was geology. We were pretty excited about this- last year our River Classroom students selected geology as a focus topic instead of biology in a vote of 14 to 1!

The high school students weren’t quite that excited, but our review of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks and the rock cycle went pretty well. Each student was handed a rock and a loupe. They had to guess what kind of rock they had. We discussed types of rocks and how to identify rocks, and then students got another few minutes to examine their specimen before explaining their guess to the class. In explaining their thought process behind their guess, we ensured that they actually had a thought process, rather than a random guess.

Photo courtesy of

We also made up a rock’s life story using the rock cycle. We went around the room, and each student selected the next stage of our story rock. I think most of the students thought that was pretty elementary, but it was a nice review before our big trip to Ghost Ranch. We got a fantastic tour of the Museum of Paleontology, where we learned about New Mexico’s state fossil, the ceolophysis, which was discovered at Ghost Ranch. We were also treated to a view of the first complete skull of vancleavea, a swimming reptile that had some crazy looking armor!

Skull of vancleavea
Skull of vancleavea

After our fantastic (and very entertaining, thanks to paleontologist Alex Downs) tour, we headed out to the Chimney Rock trail, where we got a spectacular view of the Entrada Sandstone layer that’s very visible around this area.

McCurdy students heading up the trail.

We made several stops along the way to discuss the layers that we saw along the way. We stopped to smell the Luciano Mesa limestone (It smells like natural gas when you break it off!), and we had to keep our eyes open for a giant rattlesnake that a different group had spotted on the trail not long before we ventured through.

Geology is best taught using your arms.

If you’re interested in the geology of Ghost Ranch, I highly recommend this website from New Mexico Tech. They have lots of figures to show the different layers of rock, and their descriptions make identification fairly straightforward.

Photo courtesy of

Chimney Rock makes a great hike because of the sweeping views of the Chama Valley from the top of the mesa. The Entrada Sandstone layer looks very different in Northern New Mexico thanks to its Neapolitan-esque yellow-white-red colors. In many areas you can clearly see the crossbedding that resulting from eolian dust transport when this layer was still giant dunes of sand.

Classic view of the Entrada Sandstone layer around Ghost Ranch.
Classic view of the Entrada Sandstone layer around Ghost Ranch.

Overall, the McCurdy students were fantastic, as usual. Our summary: geology rocks!


First Day at Santo Domingo Pueblo

This year, for the first time, TWC will be working with 4th grade students at the Santo Domingo Pueblo! This program will be very similar to River Classroom, except that we will take students to the Rio Grande on the pueblo. Our initial explorations of the area reveal a very different selection of benthic macroinvertebrates, and we are excited to test water quality and explore the bosque.

Our first class day in October didn’t go quite as planned due to a last minute cultural day at the pueblo, but we met with students at the school to give them an introduction to the program. The kids learned about benthic macroinvertebrates and their importance to the ecosystem. Before showing the students photos of benthic macroinvertebrates, we had them guess what they looked like and try to draw their guess. As you can see, the students did a great job!

A student's guess at what a benthic macroinvertebrate looks like
A student’s guess at what a benthic macroinvertebrate looks like

Students also learned how to use a compass to find direction. We practiced finding headings in the library, and nobody got lost!

We look forward to meeting with the students again in November and exploring the Rio Grande!


Exploring the Rio Chama

River Classroom visited the Rio Chama twice in October. The first trip was a refresher trip- students reviewed benthic macroinvertebrates and how to test water quality. This was the first trip to the Rio Chama for our new students, and everybody really enjoyed it.

A ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers explains wader safety.
A ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers explains wader safety.

A refresher in wader safety was at the top of the list, and fortunately our partners with the US Army Corps of Engineers were on hand to help out. Our favorite ranger also happens to be an expert on benthic macroinvertebrates, so he led the discussion on how this important indicator species can help us determine water quality and the health of the Rio Chama Ecosystem.

Two students test water quality with our new sensors
Two students test water quality with our new sensors

Students also got to try out our fantastic new water quality sensors, with the Labquest 2 interface from Vernier. These sensors were purchased with a generous grant from The LANL Foundation. We also purchased two new field microscopes, which did not arrive in time for this trip, materials to build more kick seine nets, and some new waders (we now have enough for everybody). We’re really set up for water quality monitoring!

One of our new goals is to take water quality measurements that are accurate enough to submit to the New Mexico Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau. The Vernier sensors are perfect for this task, and we spent much of the summer working on a Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) so that we can submit our data. Currently the Rio Chama does not have any impairments (which means that it meets EPA standards), but we will begin gathering a long term data record below (and eventually above) Abiquiu Reservoir.

On our second trip to the Rio Chama, we were fortunate to be joined by Scott Murray, a monitoring specialist with the Surface Water Quality Bureau. Scott talked to the students about his job as a water quality specialist and helped us collect benthic macroinvertebrates with kick seines. He showed students the sonde that SWQB deploys to collect data. He was great at talking to the kids and answering questions!

Scott Murray shows students how the SWQB measures water quality.
Scott Murray shows students how the SWQB measures water quality.

Scott also took samples of the river water to test for E-Coli. He demonstrated how it’s done, although test results take a day. Fortunately, the water in the Rio Chama below Abiquiu Dam is quite clean, and even if you accidentally ingested some of the water, you probably wouldn’t get sick.

Scott explaining the E-Coli test.
Scott explaining the E-Coli test.

All of the students were incredibly well-behaved, and below is what Scott had to say about the experience.

Thanks again for inviting me. I’ve been running around the office this afternoon telling everybody how impressive your program is, and the level of knowledge the kids retain. I’ve never seen a group of 4th-6th graders so well behaved and knowledgeable.

We are looking forward to continuing our water quality monitoring program and maintaining a record of temperature, pH, turbidity, conductivity, and dissolved oxygen on the Rio Chama.


Building Motors

One of the best parts about River Classroom is that our students can handle anything we throw at them. They love to experiment and get their hands dirty. That’s exactly what we did in class to learn about motors and generators.

After a short discussion about motors, they jumped right in. We divided into teams, and half of the teams began building motors, and half of the teams played with generators and voltmeters.

Our prototype motor

Our motors were simple- a battery attached to thick copper wires that supported a coil, suspended by thinner copper wire. Add in some magnets, and the coil spins like crazy! This only works if you have a continuous circuit, if you remember to remove the insulation on the supporting wires, and if you only remove half of the insulation on the thinner wires that hold the coil. If your wire isn’t insulated, you can color half of the arms of the thinner wire with a permanent marker.

One of our students drills holes to hold the wire supports.
One of our students drills holes to hold the wire supports.

The copper wires act as conductors and complete a circuit (Watch out- even if the coil isn’t spinning, if the circuit is complete, the wire gets hot!). The coil experiences a magnetic force because of the electrons flowing through it, and the magnet repels the coil, causing it to make half of a turn. When the coated part of the wire stops the circuit, the coil continues rotating due to gravity, where the uncoated part of the wire makes contact again. It’s incredible how fast it can spin.

Students troubleshoot why their motor won't spin.
Students troubleshoot why their motor won’t spin.

Creating a working motor isn’t easy. If the wires in the coil aren’t tightly packed, it won’t work. If the wire used to support the coil isn’t attached evenly, it won’t work. If the coil isn’t balanced, it won’t work. Fortunately our students are clever and figured it out with a little prompting.

In their reflections in their science notebooks, nearly all of the students successfully explained the difference between a motor and a generator and drew figures of both. How many adults can do that?


McCurdy High School Earth Sciences Class: Mapping the World

We’re very excited to be working with McCurdy High School this year. We met Melissa Berryhill at a Forestry and Fire Ecology workshop last summer, and she invited us to work with her classes of Earth Science students. We’ll meet twice per month, once during her class periods to front load the material and then we’ll have an all day field trip to learn how Earth Science is applied in real life.

In September, Ms. Berryhill was teaching her students to read maps. For our classroom session, we discussed trilateration. This is the process of determining location based on distances. For our classroom day, students were given maps of New Mexico and their distance from a city and told to determine their location. They quickly realized that they didn’t have enough information. After using a compass to draw a circle with all possibilities, students were given their distance from another city. With two circles, they narrowed it down to two possible locations. Only after given a third distance could they determine their exact location.

Photo courtesy of

This principle, along with D=RxT, is how the global positioning system (GPS) works. Students used GPS units in teams. Ms. Berryhill taught her classes to geocache to practice this important skill.

Our field day for September took place near Abiquiu. Students were divided into teams and provided with GPS units, navigational compasses, and terrain maps. Each team had the coordinates of a “victim” of a backcountry accident. They had to use the GPS unit to find their victim (a bandana buried in the rocks). This was not always straight forward. Several teams walked right up to a cliff, but had no way to climb it! Fortunately, the terrain map solved this problem, and all groups were able to locate multiple victims.

A “victim” lies under some rocks.

Students also had to use the terrain map to find the nearest LZ- a landing zone for the rescue helicopter. After determining an appropriate LZ, they had to use their compass to find a heading that they could use to evacuate their victim.

Students running to the rescue!

All of the students did really well- by the end of the activity, everybody could use a GPS, a compass, and a terrain map. Mission accomplished!

Special thanks to TWC volunteer Ann Sherman for helping us out with this activity!