Partners in Science: Collecting Benthic Macroinvertebrates

If you couldn’t tell, last week was a very busy week at NMWC. We had classes and teacher trainings, and last Sunday we made time for some good old fieldwork. NMWC is working with Dr. Pedro Chavarria at NNMU to survey benthic macroinvertebrates on the Rio Chama below Abiquiu Dam.

Students from one of Dr. Chavarria’s class are helping with collection and testing water quality. The river is running very low right now (55 cfs), and we were in a hurry to get out and get collecting before the water goes up. The end result was that we all braved chilly temperatures and the windy passage of a cold front, all in the name of science, and collected some great samples!

Examining the contents of a kick net
We took samples on transects down the river.

FullSizeRender2 We hope to repeat this collection often throughout the year.


NMWC Teacher Training

Teaching science can be really intimidating, especially for teachers who may not have taken many science classes. Trying to teach place-based science is even harder when you’re a teacher who moves to a new place! This spring and summer, NMWC is teaming up with Northern New Mexico University to host a series of teacher training events for charter school teachers at La Tierra Montessori School and McCurdy School. This training is part of the Improving Teacher Quality Grant from the Title II New Mexico Higher Education Department.

Last Saturday was our first field trip, and after meeting at NMWC and discussing the basics of geology, we hopped in the van and headed north to Ghost Ranch. There we met NMWC’s favorite local geologist, Kirt Kempter, who spoke to our teachers about the Colorado Plateau and the Rio Grande Rift.

Together we hiked Chimney Rock, stopping along the way to discuss Entrada Sandstone, the Todilto Formation, and coelophysis (seal-oh-PHY-sis).

First stop: Colorado Plateau vs. Rio Grande Rift

    The views along the hike were incredible.


Asking good questions
It’s a fault!

Despite chilly weather and strong winds, everybody made it to the top!

Checking out the views from the top of Chimney Rock

The group ate lunch on top of Chimney Rock and began the trek back down to Ghost Ranch, where we were treated to a tour of the Museum of Paleontology.

Chris, the museum director, explains how the fossil vancleavea was found.

The teachers in this group aren’t just science teachers. They’re art teachers, language arts teachers, and math teachers, and every single one of them was able to think of some way to incorporate local geology into their lessons. All education is environmental education!

If you would like an overview of the geology at Ghost Ranch, check out this link.


Learning about Local Water

Last Thursday’s field trip with Ms. Berryhill’s Earth Sciences class at McCurdy High School was entirely water-themed and introduced our students to their local water.

We began at NMWC and revisited our last class activity- desalination. Students broke into groups of one or two and made solar stills. To encourage friendly competition and up the game, there was a prize involved- a gift card to Dairy Queen!

A student putting final touches on his still
This one is ready to go outside!
Four hands are helpful
These girls used their design from last week, altered to be appropriate for solar power instead of a stove.

Students only had one hour to complete this activity because we had a date to keep at the Espanola Waste Water Treatment Plant. This plant is responsible for treating sewage and waste water from houses in Espanola. Our tour was very informative, and we were pleased to hear that almost no chemicals are used to treat our water. UV light is used instead. The water is returned to the Rio Grande, but only after rigorous testing, and the water that goes back to the river is cleaner than the water already in the river!

Students got to visit the lab where scientists examine water at different stages of the treatment process. We observed the results of a test for E-Coli, and students got to look through a microscope at some of the water.

Examining water under a microscope
Results of an old E-Coli test

As we walked through the lab, I noticed a familiar-looking device on one wall. It was actually a still- the lab makes its own distilled water! I pointed it out to students, and they were able to guess what it was and explain it. Our students were also very familiar with some of the water quality testing that goes on at the lab. It’s just like what we did earlier this year!

This is a bit more complicated than the solar stills that students created.

After this tour, students came back to NMWC for one last activity. Again, everybody split up into groups. Each group was given a geologic cross section of the Espanola Basin, an excerpt from the National Climate Assessment on how climate change is projected to alter precipitation in the Southwest U.S., and listings for two local houses for sale. Each house had a slightly different water supply- either a cistern, a private well, or city water. Students had to determine which house they would buy if they wanted a long term investment (and if they wanted to have a trustworthy water supply in 5o years). In this exercise, geology, weather and climate, and water all play a role. Students were able to synthesize much of what we’ve talked about this year and apply it to a realistic situation!

After our discussion of real estate, students ran outside to check their solar stills.


These clever students put their device on the roof!

Judging this contest turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated, and with Dairy Queen hanging in the balance, the stakes were high. Two groups created quite a bit of water, but it had a salty taste, which means that they did not entirely desalinate their water (or maybe their still sloshed while taking it off the roof). In the end one participant had not only created about 1/8 of a cup of water, but the water was good enough quality to drink. The challenge was to desalinate the most amount of water, and since this still was the only one that produced fresh water, the winner was clear.

Both of these teams did a pretty good job.

At the end of the day, I think even the students were worn out, but everybody learned something! Next month… volcanoes!


River Classroom: The Almost Finished Product

Finally, it’s time for the big reveal. What are our River Classroom students building?!

I’ll save that for the end of the post- first a few photos from class:

A student-drawn circuit diagram

What’s a circuit? Can you draw one? Our River Classroom students can! I’m always surprised at how much they retain from class to class, but last Wednesday, everybody was on a roll. We began class by reviewing electricity. This knowledge of circuits will be important for our final product.

More great photos of students building:






In case those photos don’t give it away…


That’s right! We are building working water wheels! The students have constructed the stands and the wheels, and this week we began assembly.


Above you can see one of the finished products. We will attach a generator to the wheel, and then we hope to be able to power a light bulb!

Building these water wheels was a fantastic learning experience for the students. They practiced reading and following directions and learned how to use tools. We included many different math and physics concepts. One of the more important lessons is that when building something like this for the first time, we can’t expect everything to be perfect on the first try. Building and inventing is a process of trial and error. Hopefully our first trial in the river will go smoothly!


Why Can’t We Just Drink the Ocean?

Many of our activities with Ms. Berryhill’s Earth Sciences class at McCurdy have related to water quality. Water is a critical issue in New Mexico. With decreasing snowpack and increasing water use, we’re headed for trouble. On two previous visits to McCurdy, students asked, “Why can’t we just take the salt out of sea water?”

“Well, it takes quite a bit of energy, and it’s expensive.” we said.

Why tell them this when you can show them?

This is exactly what we did with the students yesterday. First we discussed methods of purifying water. Some of these (like adding chemicals) just won’t work for taking the salt out of water. Most of the students quickly figured out that distillation would be a good method we could test in class.

We briefly discussed the process of desalination and compared the prices of desalinated water in different parts of the world, and then the students were free to create their own devices to distill salt water with the materials we brought. We had two main methods: one using a camp stove and one using the energy of the sun.

This iteration used plastic wrap to catch the condensed water. Unfortunately, the plastic wrap melted. The students replaced it with aluminum foil.
This group made an aluminum foil pipe to carry the distilled water down to a catchment.
This was a very creative system.
These students added ice to their pie pan to speed up condensation. When asked what they would change, they said they would put aluminum foil around the sides so that the steam didn’t escape.
There’s a coffee cup inside this kettle. This method made an interesting comparison to how clouds form (which we discussed last month).
One of the methods that used the sun to force evaporation. This was very effective.

After we finished building these devices, we compared them. Using a camp stove takes less time but uses fuel. The fuel for the solar version is the sun, but it takes more time. Either way, it takes quite a bit of energy to desalinate water!


Modeling Watersheds with Santo Domingo

Last Thursday we headed south to Santo Domingo for another day on the Rio Grande. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, and all of the students were ready to learn.

We began by discussing the Rio Grande- where does it begin? Most of the students thought that the Rio Grande starts at Cochiti Reservoir! Almost everybody was able to pinpoint the pueblo on drawing of New Mexico, and so we pulled out a map and added the Rio Grande and some of its tributaries.

This began a discussion of watersheds- what are they? Why are they important? Where does our water go?


Right about the time we were discussing this, a truck drove by and threw two giant bags of trash into the river. While it was absolutely horrifying to witness, it made for a good teaching moment. We talked about where the river goes and who will have to deal with that trash. Then we talked about what would happen if somebody upstream of the pueblo threw trash in the river.

After this discussion, the real fun began- students hiked up the river to the sandy arroyo where the Galisteo meets the Rio Grande and made models of watersheds using whatever they could find. At the end of class, everybody got together and demonstrated their watersheds by pouring water into them and explaining their design. Everybody did a great job!

A snowy mountain at the head of a watershed
Water rushes down a boulder-filled channel and into a lake
A “beaver pond” fills with water, thanks to the work of our dam-building beavers
Students were very creative in using resources they found around them- check out that vegetation!
This river has some nice meanders

We also discussed the importance of meanders and the difference between healthy riparian ecosystems and unhealthy rivers. Most of our students made great, healthy rivers. Those that didn’t were able to explain why their river wasn’t healthy.

Great job once again, Santo Domingo!


Engineering in River Classroom

Because of the snow a few weeks ago, we’ve been fortunate enough to have River Classroom two weeks in a row! We’ve been working on some very important activities that will lead up to an exciting finale the next time we meet. I don’t want to give anything away,  but here are some hints….

It involves a lot of building.

IMG_0812 IMG_0808

We had to learn about circles, specifically what radius, diameter, and circumference mean and how to calculate them.


There will be moving parts.IMG_0785

It involved reading directions…IMG_0778

… and modifying prototypes.


Did you have any idea these kids would be such fabulous engineers?IMG_0619

That’s all you get for now- power tools, geometry, and a bunch of incredibly smart students who have the potential to change the world!