Back at the Rio Chama with River Classroom

Fall is here at last, and that means that River Classroom has begun again! This is our 6th year of River Classroom, and so far we are working with some fantastic groups. These include the Española Public School District’s GATE students in 4th-6th grade and 7th-10th grade, the 4th-5th grades from Chama Elementary, and the 5th-6th grades from Tierra Amarilla Elementary.

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A ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers talks to our students about the Rio Chama.

We began honing our skills as scientists by doing some very close observation of limes. Groups of students selected a lime, recorded observations about the lime, and then had to select their lime from a pile.

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We also like to begin the year by doing some initial exploration of the ecosystem that we will be studying, so we handed out waders to test the waters of the Rio Chama.

Two of the groups got up close and personal with some of the local inhabitants.

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Students meeting a crayfish

 

The year is off to a great start, and we couldn’t be more thrilled with these amazing groups of kids. We’re going to have a great time exploring the beautiful habitats of New Mexico, and we’ll be collecting data and learning science along the way! Don’t forget to “follow” our blog to stay up-to-date on the latest.

 

 

Geology rocks!

For the second week in a row, we had snow on Tuesday! We’re so glad for the water, but our Chama Elementary and Tierra Amarilla Elementary students were again disappointed that we couldn’t go outside for our geology hike.

Since we couldn’t take our students to the rocks, we brought the rocks to our students!

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We began by reviewing the three main types of rocks. Students guessed as to what each type could look like. We made a chart with columns for each factor that students felt could help in identification. The last column was their guess as to the type of rock. We also reviewed subjective and objective observations. Students had to include at least one subjective observation and at least one objective observation.

Most students worked in groups, although a few chose to work independently. Each group got through about 15 rocks, and by the end of the exercise, everybody was doing a great job at identifying whether a rock sample was igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic.

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After becoming pros at identifying rocks, we moved on to learn about the Law of Superposition. Next time we talk about this, somebody remind me to bring a layer cake.

Utah Education Network has a fantastic activity for helping kids understand how geologists use rocks to piece together the story of Earth’s history. Our students began by trying to put the “nonsense cards,” which just have seemingly random letters on them, in some kind of order.

We didn’t give our students much information about this, aside from asking them to put the cards in some kind of order. Initially almost everybody tried alphabetical order.

Finally, with a few hints, everybody got it. If the letters represent rock layers, two layers that have the same kind of rock must belong next to each other. Students were also able to use the Law of Superposition to explain which rock layer must be the oldest.

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After everybody had discovered the pattern, we played the game again with different cards. This time the cards had different fossils on them. Students again put the cards in order based on the fossils found in each “layer”.

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This version of the activity is much more like what geologists do. Their job is to solve the puzzle of what’s happened on Earth in the past.

By the end of this class, all of our students had the same opinion…. geology rocks!

Introducing… Geology!

New Mexico (in general) is a pretty dry place. It seems like most people don’t own rain gear. We seldom have to adjust class for weather. This week was a rare exception- with all of the rain/snow, we had to move our outdoor River Classrooms for our Española 4th-6th graders, our Tierra Amarilla 5th-6th graders, and our Chama 4th-5th graders in to the classroom! Obviously being outside is much more fun than being inside, but we worked hard to come up with a fun activity to make up for it.

We decided to start one of our very favorite topics…. GEOLOGY!

To gauge how much our students understand about geology, we began by talking about the three primary types of rocks- igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. As we discussed the different types of rocks, our students created a cool foldable to stick in their science notebooks.

After cutting, gluing, and drawing, our students had a neat way to remember the three types of rocks and the rock cycle.

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Next, in order to make this concept stick, we used crayons to model the rock cycle! Students began with crayons with no wrappers. These represented igneous rocks. Students used plastic knives to carefully weather the rocks into sediment.

This sediment was converted into a sedimentary rock by lightly pressing on the sediment to replicate the weight of water on it. Students used even more pressure, as well as body heat to transform their sedimentary rock into a metamorphic rock.

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Students working on transforming their rock

Finally, the most exciting step: melting our “rocks” into “magma” and letting them cool to form “igneous rocks”!

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This student “carved” his “igneous rock” into an arrowhead as if it were obsidian!

While I’m sure our students would have preferred to be outside, we made lemonade out of lemons and had a lot of fun learning about the rock cycle in all three classes! The best part: now our students have the background knowledge for our next outdoor trip to be a geology hike!

Exploration of a Bosque Ecosystem

Earlier this week our 7th-10th graders from the Española Public School District took advantage of the gorgeous spring weather and ventured out to Pilar, New Mexico to explore a bosque ecosystem along the Rio Grande.

The bosque of the Rio Grande is a lovely and unique environment that encompasses the riparian forest and floodplain around the river. Willows and cottonwood trees are common native vegetation, although invasive tamarisk has taken over in many areas.

We began the day with some time to explore and take notes about this ecosystem and its characteristics.

Students practiced making objective observations of several trees in the bosque.

Because of the recent warm temperatures and melting snowpack, the Rio Grande is running pretty high. The nearest stream gauge reported a discharge of around 1200 cfs, and the water level had been steadily rising.

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Students along the Rio Grande

 

After a quick lunch break, students hiked up to a bench in the Rio Grande Gorge. From this perspective we had a fantastic view of the bosque ecosystem, as well as the rocks that surrounded us. We discussed the geology of the area and the Rio Grande Rift.

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Exploring the rocks of the Rio Grande Gorge

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Regrouping to fill out our ecosystem worksheet

After all of this exploring, we needed a break in the shade. We took advantage of one of the gorgeous group shelters in the new Rio Grande del Norte National Monument to rest in the shade and fill out our ecosystem worksheet. We spent some time comparing this ecosystem to the others we’ve visited.

We had a fantastic trip, and our students now understand a great deal about the bosque ecosystem. Next month we’ll be on to a different location!

Measuring Velocity… Using WHAT!?

With the rapidly approaching spring melt, we are getting our classrooms out into the river as much as possible. Last Wednesday our 4th-6th graders from Española braved chilly temperatures to collect some data on the Rio Chama below Abiquiu Dam.

In our last session our students learned a new equation:

D=RT

(distance = rate × time)

Our goal for this session was to find the rate/velocity of the Rio Chama. We began by reviewing this equation and talking about different units. This discussion helped us determine which units of measure would be appropriate for measuring the speed of the river. We settled on meters per second, but our tape measures didn’t have metric units, so we had to measure in feet and convert to meters.

Our clever students were able to puzzle out how we could measure the speed of the river with this equation- we could lay out a distance and measure the speed of a floating object! We decided to use an orange. They float well, and they’re so bright that they’re easily visible for catching.

Fortunately, we had a data sheet ready to collect this very data.

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We began by taking GPS coordinates of the locations where we wanted to measure the river’s speed.

Students used rocks to delineate the beginning and end of their river segments.

We had two data collection teams. Each team had 5 jobs. One person released the orange into the river, one person timed it with a stopwatch and recorded the data, one person was responsible for catching the orange with a net, and two people were responsible for making sure the orange was released and caught at precisely the right spot.

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Double checking the measurement of our length of river.
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In some cases students had to evaluate whether it was safe to continue the measurements in the middle of the river.

We also talked about possible sources of error. Students were concerned about the exact way in which the orange was released. We tried to standardize the way we did this.

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Students enjoying cheering on the oranges as they floated down the river.

Catching the orange was not always an easy task, but our students did a great job!

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At the end of class, one of our favorite game wardens dropped by! The students were excited to show off their data and explain what they were measuring and why.

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We’re so proud of our students for braving cold water temperatures to collect this data. Everybody seemed to have a great time. The next time we meet, we’ll plot this data and compare it with the measurements we took a few years ago.

 

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.

Water Quality and Maps at Chama Elementary

Our River Classroom sessions are wrapping up for the Fall semester, and for our last class with our 4th and 5th graders at Chama Elementary, we planned two fun activities to end out the year.

Students divided into two groups for two different activities and then switched places. The first activity was to create a foldable to learn about the water quality parameters we’ll be testing on the Rio Chama later in the year.

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Folding, cutting, and drawing lines

We reviewed each of the parameters one by one as students filled in their foldables. We also came up with practical examples of factors that affect temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, turbidity, and nitrate levels at the Rio Chama near the school.

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Students were very proud of their foldables and did a great job remembering all of these new vocabulary words and what they mean for our local river.

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The second activity allowed students to expand on their knowledge of latitude and longitude as well as other important ideas about geography. Students explored a variety of different types of maps (physical maps, road maps, political maps, topographic maps) and solved critical thinking problems.

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Students applied basic math skills to calculating elevation change and used their imaginations to answer questions like “Find this latitude and longitude. What type of transportation would you be using to move through this area in January?”

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Our students did a wonderful job at each of the activities, and we can’t wait to expand on this knowledge in the spring as we begin testing water quality and exploring new areas outside.