Mammals on the Rio Chama

The last time our 4th-6th grade River Classroom was at the Rio Chama, we placed some game cameras in areas that had quite a few signs of life. This week we met again at NMWC to take a look at the images and begin some important research into the animals that live along the river.

Here’s a sample of what we found:

Can you spot the rabbit?
A fox
A bobcat

Our students were pretty excited to see these images and correlate them with the signs of life we saw at the river!

Once we had reviewed the photos, our students began some basic research on these mammals. We wanted to know their natural history, where they belong in the ecosystem, whether they are threatened, and what changes to the ecosystem and habitat could have negative impacts on the species. We also discussed taxonomy and the scientific names of these species.

Books are always a good place to start.
Comparing the rabbits in the book to our photos
Moving on to online research
Debating characteristics of rabbit species
Taking detailed notes


After all of this work, we took a much-needed lunch break. After lunch, we began some preliminary work on a summative project. One of the great things about studying the environment is that everything is connected in some way. In most schools many subjects are separated by class- Algebra, English, Science. It’s not easy for students to see how they relate to each other and to the world around them.

To get our students thinking about how everything we’ve learned is connected, we had them brainstorm a (very long) list of topics we’ve discussed. We did this as a group and typed everything up. We printed copies for each group of students and had students organize them into categories. Our only requirement was that students only have between 5-10 categories.

Cutting out the words
Our students came up with three pages of words!
Discussing organization of terms
Organizing words into categories under the watchful eye of the magpie


Our students were proud of completing their task, which at first seemed insurmountable.


Once again our students exceeded our expectations. These kids are so smart, and we can’t wait to see the finished projects that they will put together connecting all of the knowledge they’ve gained over the last few years!

The kayak building continues…

Last Monday our 7th-9th grade GATE students from Española returned to NMWC to work more on their kayaks. We worked really hard, and made lots of progress. I’ll let the photos tell the story!

Sanding the frames
For the bow and stern, we used more powerful sanding methods.


We got to try them on for size for the first time!
Painting the seats with exterior enamel
Painting the frames with exterior enamel.



It turns out that painting is pretty fun!


After a lunch break, the frames were dry, and we began cutting the canvas that will cover the kayaks.

Unrolling the canvas
Carefully measuring the canvas
Measure twice, cut once



Then we carefully fit the canvas to the kayak frame and began stapling it down.

Covering the kayak with canvas


Stapling the canvas to the frame


Doing some detailed fitting at the bow and stern
It takes a team!

We made great progress this week, and I think everybody was especially excited because they really are starting to look like kayaks!

Smiles all around!

We’ll be exploring the lakes of northern New Mexico in just a few short months!


The last time we were in Tierra Amarilla to meet with our 5th-6th grade River Classroom, we discussed cells. During this class our students had some wonderful questions about how cells came to be and also about blood and blood cells. We decided to address some of these topics in class.

Eager students with wonderful questions

We discussed cells, how they’ve changed with time, where DNA is located within a cell, and how your genes determine your characteristics. Then we constructed some super cute dogs with varying characteristics based on pulling “DNA” out of an envelope.

Pulling “DNA” out of an envelope
Using that “DNA” to determine the characteristics of the dog
Drawing a dog with the appropriate characteristics
Comparing dogs

Even though all of the envelopes contained the same “DNA,” every dog looked different. Each dog had the same DNA, but different genes were expressed!



After comparing dogs all around, we decided to have a race across the gym. The only catch: students must pretend to have the characteristics of their dog. If their dog had short legs, they have to crawl. If their dog had medium-length legs, they had to hunch over, and if their dog had long legs, they could run normally. The long-legged dogs had a clear advantage in this first race!

For our second race, the “dogs” had to make it under a hurdle. Guess what? The short dogs won! This lead to a great discussion about how different characteristics (and genes) are better suited for different situations.

After this break, we jumped back into microscopes and examined blood cells, which do not have a nucleus.



Blood cells in the microscope

Since we had the microscopes out, we also took a closer look at some benthic macroinvertebrates collected earlier in the day on the Rio Chama. We see these all the time when we go to the river, but this is the first time we’ve taken a really close look at them with microscopes.

We’ll check these out in the field as soon as the ice melts on the Rio Chama!

Benthic Macrointervebrates on the Rio Chama

Due to unusually high flows on the Rio Chama below Abiquiu Dam through the end of 2015 and a very chilly start to 2016, our 4th-6th grade Española River Classroom hasn’t been able to search the river for benthic macroinvertebrates. That all changed last week, and we had quite a bit of exploring to do!

Greeting students as the bus arrives

Our first task was pretty exciting. We met with USACE Ranger Austin to hear about some of USACE’s future plans for the area below Abiquiu Dam. Part of our goal is to collect data that can be used in evaluating the ecosystem for this project.

Discussing future plans for the Rio Chama below Abiquiu Dam



After this exciting discussion (during which our students showed off their knowledge of the Rio Chama), we put on waders and headed across the river to seek out more signs of life. This time we wanted to explore a little farther, so we carried shoes and left our waders by the river.

Waders along the fence

This time we found some additional signs of life, like several bird nests and some new scat. We also went into a little more detail in discussing plants in the area and the cryptobiotic crust we found in a few places.

A bird nest
Unidentified scat
Checking out a yucca
Documenting some of the plants
Looking at cryptobiotic soil

After fully exploring the far bank of the Rio Chama, we headed back across the river for lunch and to collect and catalog benthic macroinvertebrates.

Demonstrating use of a kick seine
Coming up with a game plan
The “haul”
Collecting our “bugs” into bowls
Counting our catch
A few students collected rocks
Identifying benthic macroinvertebrates on rocks
A few students doing a comparison with a pond that becomes part of the river when the water is higher.

We found a good number of benthic macroinvertebrates (of which a good proportion happened to be midges), and we collected some great data to share with our friends at USACE. It was a gorgeous day on the river, and we can’t wait to get back out there!

Wildlife of New Mexico

One very important, and sometimes overlooked, aspect of place-based environmental education is learning what kinds of animals belong in the ecosystems in your area. Last week we addressed this with the 7th graders at McCurdy Charter School by bringing them to NMWC.

We discussed why these animals are here and on exhibit (either because they have an injury that prevents their release or because they are imprinted). We took an up-close look at a few birds and discussed what adaptations make them able to live here and why.

Testing our hand strength to see if our hands are as strong as eagle talons.

The students also got to meet our bull snake, Basil, and see how he compares to a rattlesnake.

Checking out the flammulated owl.


This particular student has been begging to see our grey fox all year.
Taking photos of our bald eagle, Maxwell.

This group of students has been begging to come and tour NMWC all year, and we were excited to give them the chance. We’ve spent the year teaching them about the ecosystems around them, and after getting to meet some of New Mexico’s wildlife, we think that these students are more committed than ever to protecting these species.

Looking at Cells in Tierra Amarilla

Earlier this year we spent a few weeks discussing plant and animal cells with our 4th-6th grade Española River Classroom. Our 5th-6th grade students in Tierra Amarilla have had fantastic questions about cells, and so we decided to take our microscopes north!

We began the day by asking a few questions to assess how much our (incredibly smart) students already knew.

Eager students with excellent questions

We ended up doing some calculations of the timing between different events in Earth’s history. Not only did this introduce how cells have changed, but it was also a pretty good refresher on scientific notation.

Math with large numbers

Our students remembered quite a bit about cells, and so we moved on to parts of a microscope. We were excited to discover that most of the kids hadn’t used one before and were about to experience microscopes for the first time!

Taking a first look through the microscopes
Checking out some plant cells




We ended up looking at onion cells (plant cells) and cells from our cheeks (animal cells). Our students were able to distinguish between the two and explain the differences.

Onion cells through the microscope
Happy to do science!

Our students in Tierra Amarilla continue to impress us with their thirst for science knowledge, and we can’t wait to head back that way again!