More Math in River Classroom

Last Wednesday was a particularly snowy one in the Espanola Valley. Fortunately for us, schools were open, and we were able to host River Classroom at NMWC! Last time we met, we were measuring the velocity of the Rio Chama using our new favorite equation D=R*T. This week we wanted to include this useful math again to help students internalize it.

Students divided into groups and calculate the rate of a car after it rolled down a ramp. The ramp height was controlled by blocks, and students had to test at least three different heights. Students also had to perform three trials at each height.

Excited about science!!!

We used stopwatches to measure how long it took the car to stop. We used a tape measure to find the distance the car traveled. From these numbers, we could calculate the rate of the car!

A student measures the distance the car traveled.

Some of the cars worked better than others- a few clearly did not have enough clearance to be used in this experiment! We had some devastating crashes.

Calculating rate
Discussing next steps
Testing the lowest ramp height

After the experiment was complete, students learned how to graph their data. We discussed independent variables (the ramp height) and dependent variables (the rate of the car). We plotted one example as a group, and then students had to plot their own data. They found the average rate of the car over all three trials for each ramp height. They did a fantastic job!

rampandcars6 rampandcars7

For their reflections, students had to think about why the height of the ramp affects the speed of the car:

“Based on our experiment today the car became faster each time we put the ramp higher. This happened because of the gravitational energy. The gravitational energy made the car go faster and friction made it stop moving.”

“Based on our experiment today I think that when we increased the height of the ramp the car got faster because the higher the ramp got the more gravitational energy there was. I also think it got faster because there was more of a slant so that car had a lot of acceleration. And the third reason I think that is because there was less friction so the car could go faster.”

“Today based on our experiment I think that when the ramp increases height the car will go faster. I know my answer is true because when the ramp gets higher there is more gravitational energy. Also when there is more gravitational energy the car picks up more speed because it is a higher elevation. The car went faster because when the car has more speed the car takes longer to create enough friction to stop.”

Since it was so snowy, our River Classroom students also had to be good citizen scientists and measure our snowfall. This resulted in an impromptu lesson on the proper way to measure snow and how to find a representative location. We even reported our snow total (2.75 inches) to the National Weather Service on Twitter!

Measuring snow

It’s been a great fall for our River Classroom, and we can’t wait to get our students back in the spring for even more science!

Happy Holidays from New Mexico Wildlife Center!


Upcoming Event: Bald Eagle Watch!

Please join New Mexico Wildlife Center and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for our annual bald eagle count at Abiquiu Lake on January 3, 2015.

Eagle Watch 2015

From our friends at USACE:

National Wildlife Federation officials have asked that participants in each state count eagles along standard routes to provide data trends. The basic objectives of the survey are to index the total wintering Bald Eagle population in the lower 48 states, to determine eagle distribution during a standardized survey period, and to identify previously unrecognized areas of important winter habitat.

The annual midwinter survey represents a unique source of long-term, baseline data. Unlike nesting surveys, it provides information on both breeding and non-breeding segments of the population at a potentially limiting time of year. The count has become a national tradition since 1984, and is an annual event at Abiquiu Lake. In addition to providing information on eagle trends, distribution, and habitat, the count has helped to create public interest in the conservation of our national symbol, the Bald Eagle.

Volunteers are asked to dress warmly and bring binoculars, notepads, and drinking water. Hot coffee and snacks will be available.

Bald eagles are a common and welcome sight at Abiquiu Lake during the winter. Unfortunately last year, NMWC cared for two bald eagles, both of which died from lead poisoning. In 2009 27 of 40 bald eagles treated in Iowa rehabilitation centers had toxic levels of lead in their blood. Where does this lead come from? Lead in ammunition and fishing gear. While federal law banned lead shot for hunting waterfowl in 1991, lead in ammunition for hunting upland birds, mammal species like deer, elk, wild pig, sheep, and coyotes distribute millions of pounds of lead into the environment every year.  Additionally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 4,382 tons of lead fishing sinkers are sold every year in the U.S.

When lead bullets enter an animal’s body they fragment. These fragments are scattered along the wound channel and often are found in abundance in its organs. A deer shot with lead bullets and not recovered is a poisoning machine. Gut piles left by hunters are probably a more pervasive source of lead poisoning. In a study conducted in the state of Washington, 90% of offal piles showed lead fragments and 94% of deer carcasses contained fragments. It takes very little lead to kill a bald eagle.

NMWC resident bald eagle, Maxwell, enjoying a lead-free fish
NMWC resident Bald Eagle, Maxwell, enjoying a lead-free fish

There are alternatives to lead ammunition and lead weights for fishing. Join us at the Bald Eagle Watch and learn about these birds and why they are worth protecting!

Christy and Katherine

Working on Weather

I love teaching all aspects of Environmental Education, but my very, very favorite will always be WEATHER.  I’m thrilled to get to share it with our fantastic students at McCurdy High School.

December can be a difficult time for planning sessions, since many schools have holiday events and/or exams. Due to the exam schedule, we decided to push our December field day up a week. Ms. Berryhill’s students came to New Mexico Wildlife Center for class.

We began class by discussing weather basics- What is weather? How do we define weather? Where in the atmosphere does weather happen? What’s the difference between weather and climate? Our students picked up this information quickly and asked some really fantastic questions. We discussed how climate change can be compared to a baseball player on steroids, and students asked about the real and fake aspects of some of their favorite weather disaster movies.

Students also learned the basics of weather forecasting. They put together a simple forecast using 850-, 500-, and 350 hPa charts as well as the previous day’s afternoon surface map and the data from the morning weather balloon launch in Albuquerque. Students had to predict the afternoon’s high temperature and the forecast for the next two days. It didn’t have to be an exact forecast- just the symbol that they would put on the 5 day forecast graphic if they were a TV meteorologist.

A student fills in the chart with his group’s forecast

The groups actually did very well- their weather forecasts were spot on, and their high temperatures for Santa Fe were pretty close. Below is the surface map for that afternoon. Two groups perfectly nailed the high temperature! How’s that for 3-degree guarantee?

2100 UTC surface map
2100 UTC surface map

After this forecasting tutorial, students split up into groups and worked through 8 different activity stations. These stations were hands-on demonstrations that highlight some of the more important aspects of weather and climate. Students could create their own groups (we had 5) and move at their own pace (since there were always stations open).

One station focused on albedo and the reflection of the sun’s radiation. One focused on seasons and why the Equator is warmer. One focused on convection currents and the movement of warm and cold water. Another had students calculating their carbon footprint. Students also created a cloud in a bottle and made lightning.

A student marvels at our cloud in a bottle
A density-driven circulation in a Tupperware
Students sit in the sun and use an IR thermometer to guess which pair of socks has a higher albedo

One of the biggest benefits to having class at NMWC was that the students also got to meet our 37 educational animals, including our peregrine falcon, Pippin.

Pippin, the peregrine falcon.

At the end of the day, the McCurdy students knew quite a bit more about both weather and native species of New Mexico than they did in the morning. Mission accomplished.


Abiquiu’s Geologic Rift: Hiking Red Wash Canyon

Last Saturday New Mexico Wildlife Center hosted our first science excursion- a geology hike near Abiquiu, New Mexico. Our guide was the fantastic Kirt Kempter, geologist and extraordinary photographer. Kirt is one of the best interpretive speakers I’ve ever met, and he does a wonderful job explaining geology.

Kirt displays one of his figures of the geology of Abiquiu
Kirt displays one of his figures of the geology of Abiquiu

We hiked up Red Wash, which opens into Cañon de Cobre, or Copper Canyon. Along the way, Kirt explained the features that we observed, including Ritito, Entrada, Todilto, and Shinarump formations and the Cañones fault, which divides the Colorado Plateau from the Rio Grande Rift.


Many people think igneous rock and volcanoes when they think of New Mexico, but the area around Abiquiu has a good deal of sedimentary rock. There are several lovely conglomerates. The Entrada Sandstone in this area is also unique with its layers of orange, cream, and yellow. Kirt pointed out that rivers have the power to deposit sediment, erode rock, or just move through a landscape. The Rio Chama has done all of these during its life, and changes in the river (and others) have greatly sculpted the landscape.

Name that conglomerate!
Colorful Entrada, with Copper Canyon in the background

Copper Canyon is massive, and we only hiked a short distance into it. Fortunately the weather was perfect for this hike- overcast, but not too hot or cold. We also had a great group of people.

Hikers take in the scenic views
Hikers take in the scenic views
Entrada Sandstone in front of Red Wash and the lava-capped Pedernal

NMWC thanks everybody who joined us on this hike, and we are deeply thankful for Kirt Kempter, not only for guiding this hike, but for donating one of his incredible photos to auction off during the hike! We’re lucky to have incredible geology in New Mexico, but we are even luckier to have scientists who spend time understanding geology and who have the patience to explain it to us!


Rainy Day on the Rio Grande

On Thursday, December 4 we headed down south to visit Santo Domingo for our first official day on the Rio Grande. The weather forecast was awful, but we were hoping that the rain would hold off until the afternoon.

Our students at Santo Domingo had never been to the river with us before. Many had never put on waders, so much of the day was spent discussing wader safety. The study site on the Rio Grande isn’t as deep as the study site on the Rio Chama, and the water flows quickly. It’s a difficult spot to learn to wade. Fortunately, the students were smart and picked up on it quickly.

We also began exploring benthic macroinvertebrates, which the students all remembered from our last session. The water temperature was much too cold for students to be picking up rocks, so the instructors had the chilly task of supplying everybody with a stone and a loupe. We found quite a few caddis (and a caddis house) and a few snails. Everybody got to see a benthic macroinvertebrate on their rock. We began discussing what these indicator species can tell us, and then we went back in the river to find more.

Unfortunately, the weather only held out for a few hours. When the first group of students returned to school for lunch, the cold rain set in. We huddled in the back of the truck, hoping for the rain to stop. Because we are scientists, we had to measure exactly how cold it was (it felt colder).

Current air temperature- too cold for kids in t-shirts!
Current air temperature- too cold for kids in t-shirts!

By the time the bus returned with the second group, the rain was only getting harder. Few of the students had rain gear, so we had to cancel the second session. I guess that means we just get to go back!


River Velocity on the Rio Chama

Last Wednesday our River Classroom headed north to the Rio Chama to fulfill a data request. Several interested parties wanted to know the speed of the river below Abiquiu Dam.

There are several ways to measure the velocity of a river. The professionals use current meters, which can cost hundreds of dollars. Right now that’s a little out of our budget. We decided to use oranges instead.

How, you may ask, can we measure river velocity with oranges?

Using math, of course!

First, you measure out a distance. We used 20 meters. Station one student at the top of this stretch with an orange. This student will hold the orange in the river, and when he or she releases it, they yell “time”.

A student releasing an orange
A student releasing an orange

At this point, another student on the shore of the river starts a stopwatch and tracks the orange down the river.

A student follows an orange down the river

At the end of the section of river, several students should be waiting with nets to catch the floating orange. This is not as easy as it sounds, so students should be staggered in case one misses!

A student follows an orange down the river.
Students wait to catch the orange.

When the orange crosses the finish line, the student in charge of the stopwatch stops the timer and reports the time to the official data recorder. So now we have a distance and the time it took an orange to float that distance. If only there were some equation that we could use to determine speed. But wait! There is!

distance = rate x time

rate = distance / time

With this clever use of math, our students found the speed of the Rio Chama at different intervals from the bank! They were proud of their accomplishment.

Students excited about their data collection
Students excited about their data collection

As students were leaving for the day, we noticed an official looking truck down river at the USGS stream gauge. It turned out to be an official scientist from the USGS who was measuring stream discharge AND stream velocity! While we weren’t able to hang around to watch the process, he did share his results with us. He found the velocity of the Rio Chama to be between 0.3 and 0.6 m/s, which perfectly matches our data!

Rio Chama Velocity Data
Rio Chama Velocity Data

Traditionally, oranges are used to measure river velocity. We weren’t sure why, so we decided to test apples and grapefruit as well. The numbers were closer than we expected. The apple isn’t the best choice because it doesn’t float evenly. It hits the river bottom and spins in shallow water.

This activity was really fun, and the students enjoyed the calculations involved. We hope to repeat this again later in the year when the river is at different flow levels so that we can correlate river discharge and river velocity.