Watersheds and Erosion in Tierra Amarilla

In River Classroom we love to be outside. If we can’t be outside, we love to make a mess while we learn inside. At our last session, we did just that!

We broke into two groups to complete two different activities- one on watersheds and one on erosion. Our watershed activity began with a discussion of watersheds. What are they? Why do we care about them? Then students created their own model of mountainous terrain by crumpling up a piece of white paper. Students highlighted the “ridges” on their model in dark colors, used a spray bottle of water to simulate rain, and watched their washable marker run downhill.

This activity really clarifies the idea of a watershed, and students get to count the number of distinct watersheds in their model based on how their washable marker runs.

Our erosion activity tested three different types of soil to determine how soil characteristics affect erosion. The first sample was dirt mixed with rocks, the second sample was dirt with plants, and the third sample was just plain dirt.

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Students poured the same amount of water into each bottle and captured the run off to analyze the differences.

Students had charts in their science notebooks to organize their observations.

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The runoff from each sample was slightly different.

Students discovered that the sample with only dirt was much more susceptible to erosion. The run off from this sample was very dirty. The sample with plants had the cleanest run off. What does this mean for a riverbank with plants on it? The roots of the plants help hold the dirt in place!

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We had a great class studying watersheds and erosion, and we ended with discussions about how these concepts relate to water quality. In the spring we’ll be back to testing water quality on the Rio Chama and the Brazos River, and we’ll be applying the ideas of watersheds and erosion and how they affect turbidity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, pH, and nitrate levels.

Synthesizing Our Knowledge of New Mexico Ecosystems

We had planned to spend last Monday at the Bosque del Apache with our 7th-10th grade Water Scholars from the Española Public School District. Unfortunately the trip had to be postponed until January. Instead, we took the opportunity to meet in the classroom and synthesize some of our knowledge about ecosystems.

We also took the opportunity to discuss climate change and how it could affect the ecosystems we’ve visited.

We began by making K-W-L charts, and students listed everything they knew (or thought they knew) about climate change, as well as what they wanted to learn.

Our students created some really nice lists of questions about climate change, and these questions were answered during a talk about climate change and what it means for New Mexico.

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Students filling out the “L” column of their K-W-L chart by listing what they learned.

After our talk, students created a lengthy list of what they learned about climate change.

After a lunch break, students returned to the day’s primary mission- comparing and contrasting two of the ecosystems we’ve visited this year, which include lake, aspen, and piñon-juniper ecosystems.

Students divided into three groups, and each group conducted online research to compare and contrast two ecosystems: lake ecosystems to aspen ecosystems, aspen ecosystems to piñon-juniper ecosystems, and piñon-juniper ecosystems to lake ecosystems.

After comparing and contrasting factors like typical elevation ranges, annual precipitation, common animals, common plants, and soil characteristics, students assembled a PowerPoint presentation to share their findings with the class.

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Of course one of the perks of class at NMWC is that you occasionally get to meet the wildlife!

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One of our volunteers introduces our students to our Saw-whet owl.

At the end of the day, students shared their presentations with the class, and we discussed how all of the places we’ve explored have been similar and different. This review was a great way to end the Fall semester. Students who missed individual field sessions were able to catch up, and we were able to synthesize some of the knowledge we’ve gained this year.

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We can’t wait to explore new ecosystems with these students in the spring!

An Action Packed Day of Learning on the Rio Chama

In order to be a good scientist, it’s crucial to understand the difference between subjective and objective observations. And what better way to learn the distinction than going on a nature hike?

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Miss Katherine leading the way on our nature hike along the Rio Chama
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Trying to warm up on our hike during a chilly December morning

Since it was a cold winter morning, we spent the first part of it warming up by walking along the Rio Chama with Miss Katherine leading the way. Miss Katherine would stop to point out numerous environmental features and asked all the students to make one subjective and one objective observation.

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Making scientific observations of our surroundings
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Taking a moment to sit and observe the river

Miss Katherine also showed us how to identify male and female plants of juniper trees (Juniperus spp.) and four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens). So what would be an objective observation? Female plants have seeds/fruits, and male plants have pollen. What about a subjective observation? The female plants of four-wing saltbush have beige-colored fruits.

Another cool trick Miss Katherine taught us was that Juniper trees have flattened leaves with scales while pine trees have needles instead of leaves. This is an objective observation. How about a subjective observation? Pine trees smell better than juniper.

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Miss Katherine explaining different features of a Juniper tree

Then, she asked the students to go on a short scavenger hike and find one native species, one invasive species, and a duck. Everyone was able to find the first two items, but there were no ducks to be seen on this chilly December morning.

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The scavenger hunt is on!

Along the way, we met a USGS employee who briefly explained to the class what her job involves and the various water samples she was going to collect from the river. The students understood and were familiar with some of the tests she was performing because they have conducted them themselves!

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USGS employee explaining what her job entails
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Telling the students all the different water sampling tests she plans to conduct that morning

Before the hike concluded, we asked the class, “Why is it important to collect data?” There were many great answers such as: to get detailed information of what’s in the area, to know exactly what’s here so that we can compare over time, so other scientists can see your data. BINGO!

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HIGH FIVE FOR BEING SUCH SMART SCIENTISTS!

After lunch, we made our very own water depth measuring sticks out of PCV pipes. Each student got a segment of pipe almost one meter long, then the students were instructed to mark their sticks at every 10 cm by putting electrical tape around the pipe.

Since it was still chilly after lunch, we split our student scientists up into 2 groups: those that wanted to go into the river and those that would rather not.

The ‘aquatic’ group geared up for wading through the river and measured water depth with their new measuring sticks. This involved spreading out across the river, measuring the distance from shore, using the 10 cm marks on the stick to estimate the water depth, and calling the number back to the official data recorder waiting on shore. We’ll be graphing this data in our next class session.

Our ‘terrestrial’ group  happened to be made up of students who missed the GPS treasure hunt we conducted in our last class. This time the teams found a land feature and marked it as a waypoint, then switched GPS units with another team. Each group had to find the waypoint/land feature. The students really enjoyed this activity!

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GPS treasure hunt again

For our next class we’ll test just how much we’ve learned up to this point with a fun game of Jeopardy, so stay tuned!

Where in the World Are We?

With GPS technology built into almost all our handheld devices these days, it’s easy to forget how our device is able to determine just exactly where we are. So for this class, we put away our smartphones and learned latitude and longitude the good ole’ fashioned way — with a map and globe (well, sort of…)

First, we explained to the class that latitude lines run from north to south and longitude lines run from east to west on the globe. We also discussed that values have a unit of degrees (but not the same as temperature degrees) and are written as coordinates, just like how you see graphing coordinates in a Cartesian coordinate system!

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Miss Christy explaining latitude and longitude while the students take notes

Once the discussion ended, each student was given a balloon to inflate which acted as their “globe” for this fun activity. First, they drew the equator around the middle and from there, they labeled the North/South poles (90°). They then drew one more parallel line in both hemispheres to represent 45°. Before drawing longitudinal lines, we gave the students several latitudinal coordinates and had them point it out on their globe (e.g. find 55° N).

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Drawing the Equator and latitude lines on the balloon globes

Once the class understood that concept, we moved on to drawing our longitudinal lines. We explained the Prime Meridian is somewhat similar to the Equator in that it’s the “middle” (aka 0°) for the longitude lines. However, it differs because it can be placed anywhere on the globe but it must run through the North/South poles. Miss Christy explained to us that the Prime Meridian has changed its location throughout history and currently it’s positioned in Greenwich, London. Once again, students drew their lines on the globe to represent longitude starting at the Prime Meridian (O°) and going up to 180° on both hemispheres, making sure that each line crossed through both poles. We did the same exercise of having students find a given location on their longitude lines.

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We asked the class, “Can you figure out an exact location with just one coordinate?” Well of course not, you need BOTH coordinates of latitude AND longitude in order to find the precise location. So with this in their minds and their globes in their hands, we asked them to find a place on their globes using the given coordinates. We did this same activity using laminated paper maps. However, instead of the teachers giving coordinates, we had students provide the coordinates for latitude/longitude for their classmates to locate on the map. On top of that, students also picked a spot on their maps and asked their classmates to give the coordinates of their location.

To finish off the day, we introduced the class to handheld GPS units. We taught them how to properly use the device and then sent them on a treasure hunt. The students got into pairs and each group was responsible for hiding candy and writing down the coordinates of their hiding spot. Then they swapped their secret locations with another team, and it was their job to enter the ‘new’ coordinates into the GPS and go find their special prize!

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Marking coordinates in the GPS in order to find the special prize

By the end of class, everybody was able to use the GPS units to discover their treat!

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These GPS skills will be super useful later in the year for tagging our scientific data!

 

Exploring the Brazos River

Our 5th and 6th grade students from Tierra Amarilla Elementary have spent the last few months exploring and collecting data from the Rio Chama in Los Ojos. Last week we decided that it was time to head to a tributary of the Rio Chama, so we spent a gorgeous, sunny afternoon exploring the Brazos River.

The first part of the day was spent hiking along the river and comparing the Brazos to the Rio Chama.

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Our students are always excited to get outside and explore!

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We found quite a few differences in the Brazos and the Chama, including the size of the stream, the surrounding vegetation, and the physical characteristics of the stream.

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After students had a chance to explore the area, we pulled out our GPS units. Students learned about latitude and longitude the last time we were at Tierra Amarilla Elementary, and this time we moved on to finding our latitude and longitude.

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After students reviewed how to find the coordinate for their latitude and longitude, we split up into teams. Each team was tasked with finding something really cool (such as a beehive or an unusual rock). Teams found the coordinate of this item and recorded it on an index card, along with a clue as to what the item was.

Next students learned how to input a waypoint and use the GPS to navigate to that specific waypoint. This took a little trial and error!

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Adjusting the coordinates for a waypoint

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Most of the students were able to find their set of coordinates and identify the object for which they were searching!

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Excited about using a GPS!

Understanding how to find a specific location using the GPS is an important skill so that our students can tag our scientific data with the location at which it was collected. Our students are now prepared to do this!

Exploring the Edward Sargent WMA

Our 4th and 5th grade students from Chama Elementary are lucky to live and go to school just down the street from one of the most beautiful places in northern New Mexico- the Edward Sargent Wildlife Area, which is operated by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF).

Last Tuesday we took these students to this area to explore. For many students it was their first time in this area. We were fortunate to be joined by Officer Zamora, with NMDGF.

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Officer Zamora explains what it’s like to be a game warden and what sort of schooling he needed to qualify for the job
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Hiking towards the Rio Chamita

The morning began fairly chilly, and the Rio Chamita was covered in a thin layer of ice when we arrived.

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Officer Zamora discussing some of the water quality parameters that these students test
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Finding the temperature of the Rio Chamita with a stream gauge. If the ice didn’t tip you off, it was pretty chilly!

These students typically visit the Rio Chama below the village of Chama, and the Rio Chamita is quite different. We discussed the differences between creeks and rivers. Comparing the Rio Chama to the Rio Chamita really allowed students to understand the difference.

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Pointing out vegetation along the Rio Chamita

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Because the Sargent is a Wildlife Management Area, there was an abundance of sign of wildlife to identify and discuss.

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Checking out a track
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One of the many tracks our students discovered
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Discussing tracks in the road
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One last opportunity to explore the Rio Chamita

Our students had a fantastic time exploring this wildlife area, and we hope that they share their new-found knowledge with their peers and families so that the entire community continues to enjoy and protect this area!

Late Fall in an Aspen Ecosystem

Fall colors have come and gone, and while we’re still waiting for cold temperatures, the foliage around New Mexico looks like winter. Last Monday our students from McCurdy Charter School headed up to Aspen Vista to explore an aspen ecosystem.

Due to unseasonably warm temperatures this fall, the trail was mostly snow free.

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Heading up the trail
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Examining some bark

As we hiked we took periodic breaks to discuss the ecology of aspen groves. Many of these students cut aspen for firewood, and a few admitted to carving their initials in the trees in the past, but few realized just how unique and special these trees are.

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Exploring an aspen shelter just off the trail
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Enjoying the view through the aspens

We found some tracks and discussed the differences between canine and feline tracks.

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Hypothesizing about what animal made this track
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A small patch of snow with a gorgeous view of Santa Fe

We found a beautiful stream, which has now been thoroughly documented on social media.

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Photos for everybody!
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A view of the gorgeous stream

Finally, as we progressed up the mountain, we hit a shaded area with snow!

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After hiking about 3 miles up the trail, we were all ready for a lunch break.

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We also discussed the connections between animals and plants in the ecosystem and created sample food webs with producers, primary consumers, secondary consumers, and decomposers.

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Working on our ecosystem worksheet

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The whole group

It’s wonderful to have trips like this on a Monday- it sets the tone for the whole week. We had a great hike on a gorgeous fall day, and these students were excited to learn more about these trees that they see often. Once student even plans on planting aspen trees in his yard!

We can’t wait for our next trip with these fantastic Earth Science students!