We’ve Got the World on a String

When you start mentioning “GPS,” most people seem to think about the app on their phone that gives directions to an address or a restaurant. As scientists, we use a slightly different sort of GPS that allows us to find our specific latitude and longitude. Marking our scientific data with an exact location is very important. It allows people who use our data to know where it came from, and it allows us to repeat data collections in a particular spot.

This week we introduced the concepts of latitude and longitude to our 4th and 5th grade students at Chama Elementary by creating our own globes!


Each student got a balloon as their “world”

We discussed how we could figure out where we are on this “world,” which led to the introduction of the concepts of latitude and longitude.

Students began by adding an Equator to their “world”.



We discussed the Equator, the Prime Meridian, and lines of latitude and longitude. One by one students added lines to their globes.



Once everybody had a globe with latitude and longitude lines, we practiced finding different locations.

We did have one apocalyptic event.

After a little more practice finding latitude and longitude coordinates on a paper map the real fun began. We pulled out our GPS units and showed students how to find their current latitude and longitude.



Students walked the length of the playground and watched their coordinates change.


With this newfound knowledge of coordinates, latitude, and longitude, these students are prepared to begin attaching an exact location to their water quality data and benthic macroinvertebrate surveys. We can’t wait to get back out in the field so they can test their skills!

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!

Chemistry Time in Chama

Chemistry is one of our very favorite subjects. A basic grasp of Chemistry is necessary to understand water quality measurements, which are a keystone of River Classroom. This week we introduced our students at Chama Elementary to some basic elements of Chemistry.

We began by taking a good look at the periodic table and defining atoms and molecules.

Many students had seen the periodic table before


After discussing the components of atoms (protons, neutrons, and electrons), we talked about atomic number and what makes each element different.

This gave students the knowledge to begin modeling atoms with felt protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Counting out protons
Assembling an atom
Discussing their atom
These students successfully modeled Fluorine!

After modeling many atoms in groups, we moved on a slightly different model, which happens to be edible. Each student created their own model of a different element. Apples served as the nucleus, and we pretended that raisins were electrons.

Counting how many “electrons” are needed based on the atomic number


A finished atom
The last photo of the “atoms” before they were consumed.


By the end of class, our students could find their way around the periodic table quite well! We’re excited that everybody enjoys Chemistry, and we look forward to taking it a step further and introducing specific water quality parameters.

Chama Elementary at the Rio Chama

Exploring new places is always exciting, and exploring a new stretch of the Rio Chama with our students from Chama Elementary was a fantastic experience! Many of our students have been fishing at this particular location with their families, but this was their first time to view this river with the eyes of a scientist.

First time in waders and headed to the river
Discussing the river


For many students it was their first time in waders. We discussed wader safety and headed on in! We also began picking up rocks and looking at benthic macroinvertebrates. Later in the year, students will survey and count these aquatic insects.

Benthic macroinvertebrates can be found by picking up rocks in the river.

We also took this opportunity to discuss maps and location. Students made observations about several different types of maps before creating their own maps of the area we were exploring.

Carefully considering a physical map of New Mexico


Drawing a compass rose on a map with a compass
Drawing maps

We also reviewed compass skills. These will be really important later as we move on to latitude and longitude.

This was our first trip into the field with the students from Chama Elementary. We all had a great time at the river, and our students are prepared to begin some serious data collection on our next trip!

Meet Our 2016-2017 River Classrooms: Chama Elementary

School has begun once again, and we have an excellent group of River Classrooms this year! Stay tuned over the next few days as we catch up on posting about our first adventures into (and out of) these classrooms.

Up first: Chama Elementary

We’re very excited to be working with the 4th and 5th grade students of Chama Elementary. This is a new school for us, and it seems that these kids have already heard a little about River Classroom from their friends in Tierra Amarilla!

We joined these students at their school on September 6 to introduce ourselves and gauge how much the students already know about water in New Mexico.

Drawing the water cycle
Working with a model of the amount of water on Earth. Students were surprised at how little of the water on Earth is accessible and drinkable.
Discussing pollution and where it comes from
Modeling the water cycle with a stove
Each student found his/her weight…
… and then calculated how much of his/her weight was from water!

We learned that the students at Chama Elementary are a fantastic group of kids who love to be outside. They also ask great questions. Our students learned what to expect from River Classroom and reviewed concepts related to the water cycle, the amount of water on Earth (and how much is usable), and what it means for water to be polluted.

On our next excursion to Chama we will be exploring the local river with these students, and we can’t wait!