Exploring an Aspen Ecosystem

One of the goals of our programs at NMWC is to get students outside and having fun. Observation skills are a very important part of science, and sometimes taking students outside to a new place is all you need to get them thinking about and observing the world around them.

Last Monday, the 7th graders at McCurdy Charter School took an adventure to the Santa Fe National Forest. We hiked on the Aspen Vista trail and learned about aspen ecosystems. Aspen are a really neat species. Not only do they spread in a really interesting way, through rhizomes, but this trait means that stands of aspen are the largest individual organism on Earth. Additionally, they recover well from wildfire and avalanche.

Students headed up the trail!
Students headed up the trail

While we’ve already had our first snowfall in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, we still observed some gorgeous fall colors in some of the aspens.



A trail with plenty of room for everybody!
A trail with plenty of room for everybody
A few students enjoying the colors
A few students enjoying the colors

While we were out and hiking, we discussed the different types of evergreen trees along the trail. We identified fir, spruce, and pine.

Checking out a pine tree
Checking out a pine tree

Of course everybody enjoyed the snow as we hiked higher up the trail.

Taking a flying leap into a snow bank!
Taking a flying leap into a snow bank

We found a neat spot to eat lunch.


We love these aspen trees!
We love these aspen trees!

After lunch, we continued up the trail a bit farther until we found a nice spot to sit and observe silently for 10 minutes. Ten minutes with no talking isn’t easy for a 7th grader.

Hiking on snow!
Hiking on snow

Our students made some fantastic observations.



We had a fantastic hike and ended up accumulating 3.72 miles as we progressed up to 10,500 ft. This is nearly 5,000 vertical feet higher than Española, and the students did a great job comparing the aspen ecosystem with that around Española. The variety of elevations and habitats is one of the characteristics that makes New Mexico so unique.


Building Model Boats

Our 7th-9th graders in our Española River Classroom visited NMWC last Friday for another day learning about kayaks and water. We’re almost ready to start building real kayaks, but we decided that first we need to test some models of different types of boats.

Before getting out our building supplies, we had a quick refresher on density and buoyancy. We filled cylinders of a known volume (which we calculated) with different objects. After weighing them, we calculated the density. We compared these to the density of water and guessed whether or not they would float. We then tested our hypothesis. Thanks to our knowledge of science, we were right every time!

Weighing a cylinder of sugar
Filling a cylinder with water to test the density of water.
This is definitely denser than water!

Next we observed how much water these cylinders displace by marking the water level in a clear plastic cup, placing the cylinder in the cup, and drawing a new line.

We also tested this with a cork.
Testing how much water is displaced by a cylinder.

Finally, we were ready to get to building model boats. We began by observing a few floating objects with different shapes. This provided a few ideas to get going.


Soon we had materials out and began building.

Building boats
Building boats
Building boats

As we completed designs, we tested them in the pool. Not every design worked on the first try, but that’s how it goes with science!


This design needs some work.
This one is fairly aerodynamic.
Design inspired by Imperial Star Destroyer?

Everybody designed very different boats, which was a great opportunity to test and discuss why different boats have different shapes (and different purposes).


This one held quite a bit of weight!

After getting some hands-on design experience, our students design a theoretical boat and explained its purpose.




One final look at our flotilla!

Having a pool in the classroom made a bit of a mess, but these kids even helped clean up! You can’t beat that.

Mopping up the mess!

Once again, our students continue to impress us. We can’t wait for our next class!


Learning about the Water Cycle in Tierra Amarilla

Last week was a pretty wet one in New Mexico, and that made it the perfect time to bring up one of our favorite topics- the water cycle! Most 5th and 6th grade students have at least heard of the water cycle, but last Thursday in Tierra Amarilla, we took it to a new level!

We began by discussing the amount of water on Earth. Many people can rattle off statistics about the percentage of Earth’s surface that is covered by water, but when you start looking at the volume of water on Earth that’s usable, it’s a different story. NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement Mission has a really nice lesson plan that includes a demonstration using a 5 gallon bucket. This bucket represents all of the water on Earth. By the time you eliminate salt water, water that isn’t clean, and water that isn’t accessible, you have one tiny drop left!

Checking out our bucket of water that represented all of the water on Earth

Next, we discussed the water cycle. Most of the students were familiar with this, but we added a few new terms: transpiration, evapotranspiration, and groundwater.

We demonstrated the water cycle with a camp stove. Since the sun’s radiation drives the water cycle on Earth, it’s a nice model. It was raining for much of this demonstration, so we got a good look at the precipitation stage of the water cycle!

It was a chilly day, and the camp stove was a welcome source of warmth!
Adding ice to create condensation in our model water cycle
Adding ice to create condensation in our model water cycle

Students also drew the water cycle for their community. We discussed where our water comes from, where it goes, how it’s used, and why we care about water quality.

Drawing the water cycle for a specific place isn't as easy as it sounds!
Drawing the water cycle for a specific place isn’t as easy as it sounds!


After completing their drawings, a few students presented them to the class!


Finally, we spent a few minutes reviewing water quality parameters. All of this talk about water made us pretty excited to go to the river the next time we’re up in Tierra Amarilla!


Why Environmental Education?

The following is from NMWC’s September newsletter.

Wildlife rehabilitation and conservation are two major foci of New Mexico Wildlife Center. Both are important for the future of wildlife and habitats. Equally important is the role of education. If we cultivate a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world in our children, they will grow up with a desire to protect the natural environment that serves as habitat for our wildlife.


NMWC’s science education program is accomplishing this. Our River Classroom program takes local 4th-12th grade students out into important local habitats, including rivers, canyons, and mountains. For the 2015-2016 school year, we are working with students in Española Public Schools, McCurdy Charter School, and Tierra Amarilla Elementary. We have 150 students.


This style of place-based education directly addresses problems with student motivation, engagement, and even discipline. Research shows that students in environment-based education programs have higher test scores (Lieberman et al. 2000). Additionally, students in environment-based education programs have fewer disciplinary interactions, a lower tardiness rate, and fewer unexcused absences (Lieberman and Hoody 1998).


Additional research has show that children today are not spending enough time outdoors. Research from the University of British Columbia shows that risky outdoor play is not only good for children’s health but also encourages creativity, social skills and resilience. Being in nature also improves mental health, and exposure to natural settings may be widely effective in reducing ADHD symptoms. These articles and others are all the more reason to get our kids outside and learning.

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Our students are not taking field trips- they are doing field work. We collect vital data that includes measuring water quality parameters and surveying benthic macroinvertebrates. These data help us evaluate the health of the riparian ecosystems. Our water quality data is submitted to the New Mexico Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau for monitoring purposes, and our students take data collection seriously.


In our programs, students learn to collect, analyze, and present data with scientific tools like microscopes, computers, and high tech sensors. Last year we learned about energy and built working water wheels that we tested on the Rio Chama. This year one of our classrooms is building kayaks to learn about buoyancy. We focus on robust science (biology, physics, ecology, and chemistry) and teach students how to ask and answer questions and how to think critically. We focus on enjoying the beautiful habitats that we have in northern New Mexico, but our students also gain a foundation of skills and knowledge that prepares them for the jobs in science and technology that will guide our societies to environmental health and balance. We expect great things from our students.  A healthy, balanced, thriving ecosystem for all species depends upon them.


This year we’re receiving support from several generous sponsors: Wells Fargo, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Security, LLC, and the LANL Foundation. Thank you for supporting our education programs!


Water Quality and Benthic Macroinvertebrates in Tierra Amarilla

Fall is a wonderful time to explore the rivers of New Mexico. The sun is still warm, but the water is cool. It’s the perfect time to send students into the river in waders, and this is precisely what we did in Tierra Amarilla last week.

Waders all in a row.
Waders all in a row.

We divided our group into the 5th grade class and the 6th grade class at Tierra Amarilla Elementary and divvied out the waders. Our groups took turns learning how to use kick nets and searching for benthic macroinvertebrates and getting their hands on our fantastic Vernier water quality sensors for the first time.

Identifying benthic macroinvertebrates using loupes
Testing out the Vernier display and water quality probes
Testing dissolved oxygen

We were on the Rio Chama once again for this trip. We’re looking forward to comparing our data in this location to our measurements on the Rio Chama below Abiquiu Dam. This will give us a more thorough understanding of the Rio Chama and the health of the riparian ecosystem.


Learning About Earth’s History and Water

Biology is our focus in our River Classroom for our 4th-6th grade students from the Española Public School District. Last Wednesday we spent a gorgeous day outside at Abiquiu Lake learning a few more important background topics to put our biology in context.

First, we learned about Earth’s history.

Have you ever tried to write out 4.6 billion? It's difficult!
Have you ever tried to write out 4.6 billion? It’s difficult!

Then we took our newfound knowledge and created timelines to scale showing the age of the Earth and how life has evolved over the last 4.6 billion years.

Stretching out the timeline
Determining where to label the most “recent” events, like the dinosaurs
In the last several hundred thousand years, Earth has changed rapidly!


After learning about Earth’s history, we moved on to a discussion of water. Water is one of our most limited and valuable resources in New Mexico, and we want our students to understand as much as they can about it. We talked about the shape of the molecule and how this shape causes it to be polarized. Then we investigated the properties of water compared to isopropyl alcohol.

Learning about the properties of water
Dropping water and isopropyl alcohol onto a piece of wax paper with a dropper to compare and contrast properties of these liquids

We ended the day with a contest to see who could drop the most drops of water and isopropyl alcohol onto a penny.

Every drop counts!

It was another beautiful day with our River Classroom students, and we can’t wait until our next meeting!


Comparing Lake and River Water Quality

The weather has been gorgeous lately, and with River Classroom, we latch on to any excuse we can to be outside. Yesterday, our 4th-6th graders from Espanola headed back to the Rio Chama below Abiquiu Dam to test water quality.

We began on the Rio Chama, where half of our students measured data, while the other half learned “The Good Graph Rules”. These rules will be very important next time we meet, and we’ll be creating graphs on which we can record our water quality data for the rest of the year.

Testing water quality on the Rio Chama
Testing water quality on the Rio Chama
Recording our data
Taking time out to catch and identify a Sagebrush lizard

After a thorough discussion of the water quality on the Rio Chama, we headed back up to Abiquiu Lake to eat lunch and switch groups. We wanted to compare water quality on both bodies of water.

Everybody is happy to be outside doing science!
Confident students measuring dissolved oxygen
Measuring pH and conductivity with our samples.
Recording meteorological data
Everybody has a job and a parameter to measure

We’ve measured water quality before, but this was the first time this year that we took the time to discuss it in detail. Water is a very important resource in New Mexico, and our students understand why it’s something that we should value and protect. We’ll continue monitoring water quality data throughout the year, both in Abiquiu and in Tierra Amarilla. These data will help us understand the Rio Chama watershed so that we can protect and conserve it.