Exploring an Aspen Ecosystem

Most people in the western U.S. would agree that the fall colors of the Quaking Aspen just can’t be surpassed. This species is also a very interesting species of tree, and it’s a very adaptable species, growing in diverse environments. Last week we took our 7th-10th grade Water Scholars group on a hike to explore an aspen forest above Santa Fe. Unfortunately, the majority of the golden leaves had already fallen to the ground, but we had a great time hiking and learning about this unique tree.

The whole group before the hike

Along the way we took a few breaks to discuss aspens, where they can be found, why, and what we observed about the aspen forest around us.


An interesting find along the trail
Looking out over the aspen grove

Aspens are an important succession species, and they often are the first trees to regrow after a major ecological incident, such as a wildfire or an avalanche. The aspens along the Aspen Vista trail are growing in an area where there was a major wildfire in the 1800s.



After hiking a little over 2 miles, we took a break for lunch and to fill out our ecosystems worksheet.



Students took detailed observations of the area

Before we knew it, it was time to head back down the trail.


A group photo before heading out

Students learned a great deal about higher elevation ecosystems, including characteristics such as annual precipitation, typical plants and animals, and possible effects of climate change on these fragile areas. We will continue to explore a variety of locations throughout the year so that these students gain a better understanding of how many unique ecosystems we have in New Mexico!

Atoms, Elements, and Molecules OH MY!

Atoms are the building blocks of everything– that was the main theme of our last River Classroom for our 4th-6th graders from Española. Our students learned that atoms are the foundation for everything in the world and that the periodic table is THE tool to use for exploring these atoms.

At the beginning of class, each student was given a copy of the periodic table and asked to write down all the information they could gather from simply looking at it. The class noticed that each atom was abbreviated to a symbol, certain atoms were grouped together, and each one had an atomic number. Great!


Next, we had them find elements based on their atomic number. We explained that the atomic number provides information about the quantity of protons, neutrons, and electrons that each specific element contains.

At this point, our students learned that protons have a positive charge, neutrons have no charge, and electrons have a negative charge. Protons and neutrons can be found in the atom’s nucleus, but electrons are found around the atom in atomic orbitals. Each orbit can only hold a specific number of electrons. After students practiced drawing different atoms in their science notebooks, we assigned students the roles of “protons”, “neutrons”, and “electrons” and acted out a room-sized atom. They definitely had a lot of fun with this one!

We also divided students into pairs and had them model atoms using a felt square with painted atomic orbits and felt protons, neutrons, and electrons. We assigned each group a different atom to model. The kids liked this activity so much, they just kept asking for more atoms to model!



After a lunch break, we split the class up into two groups; one group modeled an atom individually and the other group made “molecules” out of trail mix.

Students in the first group were assigned an element and had to model their element using an apple as the nucleus and raisins as electrons. The kids broke skewers into various sizes to demonstrate different atomic orbits. It was really great to see how engaged the students were with this activity and how they chose to float the “electrons” around their atom’s apple.




In order to emphasize the point that molecules are comprised of different elements joined in a specific proportion, we used snacks to get their attention! Students were given the task of creating several different molecules using the ingredients for trail mix. We did this by selecting several molecules such as glucose (C6H12O6) and assigning each element a specific part of the trail mix (e.g. raisins are carbon, peanuts are hydrogen, etc.). Everyone had a blast getting to create numerous molecules—and getting to eat chocolate chips and popcorn while doing it wasn’t so bad either!


Finally, as we do at the end of each class, we helped students relate our lesson back to the real world and apply it to our everyday lives. Our students understand that the periodic table, atoms, and molecules are important because they make up the foundation of everything in the entire world- without them nothing would exist!




Testing Water Quality in Tierra Amarilla

Chemistry is an important basis for learning about water quality, and now that our students in Tierra Amarilla are familiar with the basics, we decided to add water quality testing to our scientific agenda.

NMWC uses Vernier water quality probes and has a Project Quality Assurance Project Plan (PQAPP) in place with New Mexico Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau so that our data can be submitted to the state for monitoring purposes.

A student tests the pH of the water
Testing the level of nitrates in the water
Testing the level of dissolved oxygen in the water as the data recorder waits for a number to record


While half of the class was testing water quality, the other half donned their waders and set off into the Rio Chama to survey benthic macroinvertebrates.


After collecting benthic macroinvertebrates, students brought their sample back to shore. We selected a few specimens to examine up close and saved the rest for counting.



Students use a dichotomous key to identify these invertebrates.


We had a very productive day of data collection, and we ended by asking these young scientists to summarize our results. We’ll continue to monitor this location as seasons change to gain a better idea of how healthy this river is during different parts of the year.

What’s in a Watershed?

One of the benefits of teaching River Classroom at so many schools along the Rio Chama is that we can provide a more in depth analysis of the river as a whole. While we typically take our students to one particular location on the river, we often discuss our water quality/benthic macroinvertebrate survey results from other groups at other locations. We also make it a point to repeatedly discuss where the river begins and where it goes, and we introduce the concept of watersheds.

The concept of a watershed is not a straightforward one, so we try to use concrete models that students can manipulate. For this particular class, we took the Chama Elementary students to the top of the Rio Chama watershed to explore this area before it’s covered in snow.

Discussing the idea of a watershed

We divided students into two groups. One took an exploratory hike and discussed topographic maps while the other created their own landscapes with watersheds on paper. Students crumpled up a piece of paper and then highlighted the mountains and the canyons/basins with washable markers.


Some students chose to create a very large landscape in a group
Other students preferred to work individually to create their watershed.


A finished “landscape” using brown to highlight the mountains and blue to highlight lower areas where lakes/rivers could be

After finishing their landscape, students introduced some “precipitation” to the equation.



By watching which way the washable marker ran off of the “mountains,” students were clearly able to pick out different watersheds on their maps!



At the end of this activity, students had a much better idea of how we define watersheds and why we should care. What happens at the top of a watershed can trickle down and affect us where we live. These students now have a much better appreciation of why we monitor the entire Rio Chama watershed!

Exploring Cañones Creek

This week for River Classroom, we took the students to Cañones Creek, a tributary of the Rio Chama, to discuss the differences between a creek and river. This was the students’ first time at the creek, and they had a blast!

Wading through Canones Creek

Before we began exploring, we talked about how a creek and river differ in terms of water characteristics, plant life, and animal activity. We also introduced a new term… invasive species.

Looking over the NM Invasive Plant Species handout

As a class, we defined what an invasive species is as well as the impact it has on the environment it was introduced to and the ecosystem as a whole. Students were then given the task to try to find at least one of the eight invasive plant species that were on their handouts.

Next, the students were asked to find signs of animal life along the creek. Within minutes, the class found a cow skeleton. They also discovered an abandoned beaver den, raccoon and muskrat tracks, and a dead tree with numerous woodpecker holes. Before starting to look for benthic macroinvertebrates, the students recorded their observations of the creek itself as well as their findings in their science notebooks.

In previous classes, the students received a brief tutorial about benthic macroinvertebrates and their role in indicating water quality. So this time we went a little more in depth and discussed the various benthic species and in which types of water each would be found. To look for benthics, students examined the bottoms of rocks in a riffle above a deep pool in the creek. The most abundant species they found were caddisfly larvae, followed by midges. Once the students were done collecting benthics, we discussed what their findings tell us about the creek’s water quality; it was concluded the water was only fairly clean because there was a low diversity of benthic macroinvertebrates. The class was then asked, “Why do you think the water quality is only fairly clean?,” to which they responded, “Maybe because there’s a lot of cows using this creek since we found a skeleton and lots of poop.” BINGO!

Exploring Canones Creek

Since the students had so much fun exploring Cañones Creek, it didn’t leave us very much time to collect data from the Rio Chama. To make the most of our time, the class divided into 3 groups with each group being responsible for one of the three tasks: find 1 invasive species from the handout, find 1-2 benthics, and find signs of animal life. Group 1 found a lot of Tamarisk; Group 2 found Caddisfly and Stonefly larvaes; and Group 3 found fox scat.

Based on our findings, our class concluded that the river had better water quality and more invasive plants than the creek. However, the creek had more animal activity.

Examining Canones Creek

Overall, the students learned that a creek is different from a river because it is smaller/narrower than a river and does not branch out like a river does. Also, a creek will have more animal activity than a river because it safer for critters to access since it’s shallower and the current is typically slower. Lastly, the students learned that an invasive species is not native to that specific environment and has a negative impact on its surroundings.

We had a really great time exploring new land and learning new concepts. We can’t wait until the next adventure      🙂

McCurdy High School Explores the Rio Chama

There’s one River Classroom that we haven’t blogged about yet this year, and that’s McCurdy High School! High schools students have many demands on their time, so this group meets once per month to explore different aspects of Earth Science.

This month we headed to the Rio Chama to learn about riparian ecosystems.

Waders in a row on a gorgeous fall morning

Many of these students had never been to the Rio Chama before, so we began by discussing the river, where it is, where it begins, where it ends, and where the water in the river comes from. To allow our students to explore the area a little, we discussed different types of maps and had our students create their own maps of our study area.

Discussing what to include on the maps


After each student had explored the area and created a map, we set out the maps on a picnic table. The students circulated around the table and noted similarities and differences.


Once we had a better grasp on the path of the Rio Chama we began collecting scientific data. One group worked on testing water quality (temperature, pH, turbidity, conductivity, nitrate levels, and dissolved oxygen levels), while the other group collected and counted benthic macroinvertebrates. The groups switched places so that all students got to collect both types of data and record it on their data sheet.


Measuring the conductivity of the water


One of our fantastic McCurdy teachers points out caddis on a rock


Getting a closer look at a benthic macroinvertebrate



We had a really wonderful day and collected a wealth of scientific data that lead us to conclude that while the Rio Chama at this location isn’t pristine, it’s not in bad shape in many ways.


We look forward to our next adventure with these students!

Atoms and Molecules in TA

Chemistry is a very important science, and many aspects of our lives have been changed by past discoveries related to this field. It also seems to be a fairly intimidating science for many high school students. We feel that it’s very important for students to experience Chemistry before they get to high school. Last week we ventured into this field with our students at Tierra Amarilla Elementary.

We discussed the periodic table, atoms and elements, and how atoms can combine to form molecules.

Students “building” an atom with felt protons, neutrons, and electrons
Discussing electron placement
By the end of the activity, we had some pretty complex atoms!

Our 6th graders were familiar with the idea of atoms and molecules from last year, so with these students we also discussed molecules and introduced concepts that will be important to stoichiometry.

Creating “glucose” (C6H12O6) trail mix, using different ingredients as the elements needed for this molecule
Chlorophyll requires even more “elements” than glucose!


After building “atoms” in groups and learning how combinations of elements can produce different molecules, each student had the opportunity to create their own edible model of an atom using an apple for the nucleus and raisins for electrons.



Some of our students built very complicated elements!


By the end of class our students had a pretty good understanding of what atomic number means and how atoms combine to form molecules. This knowledge is a good basis for starting to learn about water quality in our next session!