Why Environmental Education?

The following is from NMWC’s September newsletter.

Wildlife rehabilitation and conservation are two major foci of New Mexico Wildlife Center. Both are important for the future of wildlife and habitats. Equally important is the role of education. If we cultivate a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world in our children, they will grow up with a desire to protect the natural environment that serves as habitat for our wildlife.


NMWC’s science education program is accomplishing this. Our River Classroom program takes local 4th-12th grade students out into important local habitats, including rivers, canyons, and mountains. For the 2015-2016 school year, we are working with students in Española Public Schools, McCurdy Charter School, and Tierra Amarilla Elementary. We have 150 students.


This style of place-based education directly addresses problems with student motivation, engagement, and even discipline. Research shows that students in environment-based education programs have higher test scores (Lieberman et al. 2000). Additionally, students in environment-based education programs have fewer disciplinary interactions, a lower tardiness rate, and fewer unexcused absences (Lieberman and Hoody 1998).


Additional research has show that children today are not spending enough time outdoors. Research from the University of British Columbia shows that risky outdoor play is not only good for children’s health but also encourages creativity, social skills and resilience. Being in nature also improves mental health, and exposure to natural settings may be widely effective in reducing ADHD symptoms. These articles and others are all the more reason to get our kids outside and learning.

Version 2

Our students are not taking field trips- they are doing field work. We collect vital data that includes measuring water quality parameters and surveying benthic macroinvertebrates. These data help us evaluate the health of the riparian ecosystems. Our water quality data is submitted to the New Mexico Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau for monitoring purposes, and our students take data collection seriously.


In our programs, students learn to collect, analyze, and present data with scientific tools like microscopes, computers, and high tech sensors. Last year we learned about energy and built working water wheels that we tested on the Rio Chama. This year one of our classrooms is building kayaks to learn about buoyancy. We focus on robust science (biology, physics, ecology, and chemistry) and teach students how to ask and answer questions and how to think critically. We focus on enjoying the beautiful habitats that we have in northern New Mexico, but our students also gain a foundation of skills and knowledge that prepares them for the jobs in science and technology that will guide our societies to environmental health and balance. We expect great things from our students.  A healthy, balanced, thriving ecosystem for all species depends upon them.


This year we’re receiving support from several generous sponsors: Wells Fargo, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Security, LLC, and the LANL Foundation. Thank you for supporting our education programs!


McCurdy Visits the Rio Chama

We’ve tried several times to take our McCurdy High School Earth Sciences class to the Rio Chama to explore the riparian ecosystem, test water quality, and survey benthic macroinvertebrates. Each time the weather has foiled our plans. Finally last Thursday we got our chance!

McCurdy High School students learning to use kick nets.

We began the day on the Rio Chama, where students put on waders and learned how to safely wade in the river. Students took turns using the kick nets and picking benthic macroinvertebrates off of the kick nets with tweezers. We took samples from the middle of the river and from the river bank.

On the river bank, we found mayflies, midges, leeches, snails, craneflies, and one bristle worm. In the center of the river, we found caddis larva, worms, craneflies, midge pupae, midge larva, and mayflies. The crane flies in the center of the river were much larger, and overall we found a much greater diversity of benthic macroinvertebrates. We suspect this is because the center of the river has had water through the winter, while the banks did not. The river level has risen steadily during April, as seen below in the stream gauge data.


One of our more interesting finds of the day.

Students also helped calibrate our water quality sensors and test river temperature, pH, turbidity, conductivity, and level of dissolved oxygen.

After all of this data collection, we headed up to Abiquiu Lake to celebrate the students’ hard work with a picnic.

A few brave students even swam in the cold water!
Enjoying the views.

Our McCurdy students have done a fantastic job this year. We’ve covered a lot of material, and the students have made great progress in their Earth Science knowledge. We hope to see some of these students in the future at Northern New Mexico College!


Exploring New Territory: The Pecos River

Last Friday was overcast and rainy, but that didn’t stop us from heading to the Pecos River with a Wildlife Biology class from Santa Fe High School! This class has been a part of Trout Unlimited’s Trout in the Classroom program, and they raised a tank full of tiny Rio Grande Cutthroat trout. Last Friday, the class released the trout. We also discussed and tested water quality and identified benthic macroinvertebrates, to be sure that the stream is healthy enough for the trout to survive.

Using kick seines to find benthic macroinvertebrates.
Now THAT’S a salmonfly!
Looking at benthic macroinvertebrates with a few members of the Truchas TU Chapter.
One of the tiny cutthroat, ready for release.
The trout goes into the river!

We found a fantastic diversity of benthic macroinvertebrates, including some of the biggest stoneflies (Pteronarcys) I’ve ever seen. The Pecos is a very healthy river, with low values of turbidity and conductivity (until students began wading upstream) and high values of dissolved oxygen (DO). We have high hopes for these little trout!


Valles Caldera Adventure

The great thing about taking an Earth Sciences class in New Mexico is that this state seems to have almost every kind of Earth Science! Oceans are the obvious exception to this, but fortunately Ms. Berryhill’s class at McCurdy High School is learning about volcanoes. We have plenty of those.

Last Thursday we took our McCurdy students to the Valles Caldera. This lovely location is pretty unique. In fact, it’s where geologists figured out how a caldera works. Unfortunately, due to very heavy rain the evening prior, we could not venture into the preserve.

A lovely morning view of the Valle Grande

We began at one of the Highway 4 pull offs, where we use plexiglass to outline the shape of the terrain across the Valle Grande. As you can see from the photo, low-hanging clouds presented a small obstacle, but the students did great.

Outlining terrain on plexiglass with a dry erase marker
Some students got really into it and used different colors.

After the students finished their artistic renderings, we held them back and examined them. What is this landform? Why is there such a large valley? What caused this?

Some students knew the answer- a caldera. The real trick was to put giant flash cards of caldera formation in the correct order. The students really enjoyed this and debated the order for at least 15 minutes. Eventually we got it right.

from the Winter 2010 New Mexico Earth Matters, a publication of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources
from the Winter 2010 New Mexico Earth Matters, a publication of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources

Our next activity was to model a caldera eruption with flour. This relatively simple activity really demonstrated the caldera collapse after the initial eruption.

A caldera in a box of flour
A caldera in a box of flour

We had one other model, which doesn’t fit Valles Caldera, but not all eruptions are the same. We created a volcano out of gelatin, and we used a 30 CC syringe to create dikes out of food coloring. This activity was also really neat- we were able to model a fissure eruption.

Plus, this volcano was edible when the demonstration was complete!
Plus, this volcano was edible when the demonstration was complete!

By the end of these demonstrations, students had a pretty good idea of how Valles Caldera formed. We were very fortunate to be joined by New Mexico geologist Matt Zimmerer. Not only is Matt very familiar with Valles Caldera, he was able to answer quite a few general geology questions.

Matt explains the ins and outs of Valles Caldera.

After quite a while at the Highway 4 pull out, we continued down the road. We stopped briefly at Battleship Rock for lunch and another geologic explanation before heading to the Soda Dam. Most of us in New Mexico have driven past this roadside attraction many times, but it seems like few people actually stop to examine it. It’s definitely worth a stop!

Inside the Soda Dam
Inside the Soda Dam

The soda dam has formed as calcium carbonate has precipitated out of the water to form travertine.

McCurdy students at Soda Dam.
McCurdy students at Soda Dam.

The students really enjoyed exploring the soda dam, and climbing around on it seemed to wear them out. Almost everybody napped on the way back to Espanola.

All in all, it was a fantastic adventure. Despite a gloomy weather forecast, we had no rain until we were back in Los Alamos. It was another great day of science with our local students!