Exploring a Piñon-Juniper Ecosystem

Last Monday our 7th-10th grade Water Scholars from Española began our week in the best manner possible- by hiking and exploring a new place outdoors!

We headed into a canyon near Abiquiu to seek out pinon and juniper trees and check out some of New Mexico’s unique geology.

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Hitting the trail

Our students have learned a little bit about geology in school, but we expanded their vocabulary to include the words conglomerate, fault, and rift.

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We found some gorgeous rock formations and a mini arch.

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Examining a stratigraphic diagram of the area and pointing out layers
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The mini arch

After a weekend of clouds and rain, everybody enjoyed being out in the sun.

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By lunch time, students were actually seeking out the shade!

 

We also discussed pinon and juniper trees and their importance to this ecosystem, as well as to our lives.

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Checking out the trees

After lunch, we filled out our ecosystem discovery worksheets and compared this area to the last place we visited.

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Some of the gorgeous Entrada sandstone we hiked through

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We had a fantastic hike, and we can’t wait for our next trip with these wonderful students!

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.

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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.

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An interesting find along the trail
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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.

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

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Students took detailed observations of the area

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

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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!

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Students use a dichotomous key to identify these invertebrates.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Discussing what to include on the maps

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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.

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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.

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Measuring the conductivity of the water

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

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Getting a closer look at a benthic macroinvertebrate

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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.

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We look forward to our next adventure with these students!

Where is Water on Earth?

One of our main areas of focus in River Classroom is water. By the end of the year, we expect our students to be familiar with the concepts of how much water is on Earth, where that water is found, and how much is usable for humans. This concept helps students understand why we need to protect our freshwater resources in the first place.

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Our Española 4th-6th grade River Classroom spent the day learning these concepts.

We began with a brief discussion about water to assess our students’ level of knowledge.

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Then we divided into two groups for different activities. One group modeled the amount of water on Earth with a 5 gallon bucket. Students were surprised to see this dramatic demonstration of exactly how little of the water on Earth is usable for people.

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Brainstorming all the places where we find water
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Pouring out water for glaciers
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Creating a pie chart of the amount of water on Earth

The second group modeled the water cycle with a camping stove. They observed evaporation, condensation, and “precipitation,” and they acted out the motions of the molecules in these changes of state.

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Discussing the water cycle

After all students had completed both activities (and after a lunch break), we went on to play a game centered on water on Earth. We had seven stations representing seven places where water is found (oceans, glaciers, plants/animals, atmosphere, etc.). At each station students color in a box on a worksheet representing a turn at that location. Each station had a dice for students to roll. The number on the dice would determine the students’ actions and whether the student would remain at the same station or move to a different one.

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This game quickly turned into a competition with students running from station to station!
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Rolling dice and filling in boxes

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After students had completed 100 rolls of the dice, they calculated the number of times and the percentage of times that they spent at each station. Many students spent a lot of time in the ocean or as groundwater.

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This game emphasizes that while water moves through the water cycle, sometimes it gets “stuck” in one form or another, where it can stay for a very long time.

Our students did a great job and have a much better understanding of water on Earth. This introduction was the perfect set up to learning why our water quality measurements are so important later in the year.