McCurdy 7th grade at the Rio Chama

We have quite a few new classrooms this year, and one of these is made up of the 7th grade science classes at McCurdy Charter School in Española, NM. These students are at a wonderful age to learn. They’re old enough to understand a little more than elementary school students, but they’re still so excited to learn!

For our first trip, we headed to the Rio Chama below Abiquiu Dam. Students split into three groups to test water quality, search for benthic macroinvertebrates, and complete a scavenger hunt that allows students to learn about their environment.

Selecting a benthic macroinvertebrate from a tub of water from the Rio Chama

We met with these students last week and discussed the importance of water quality and benthic macroinvertebrates, so they were excited to get started collecting data!

A student examines a mayfly with a microscope.

Once again, the rangers with US Army Corps of Engineers at Abiquiu Lake came through with expertise and assistance. We like to introduce our students to possible careers in environmental science, and our ranger explained why he loves his job (apparently getting to drive a boat and ride a jet ski at work are big draws).

A Rio Chama resident

A mayfly clinging to a rock.

We’ll be meeting with these students once per month all year, so keep checking in to see what we’re up to!


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!


More Benthic Macroinvertebrates

Last week was officially the Week of Benthic Macroinvertebrates around here, as we discussed those little bugs with the kids at Embudo and with our Earth Sciences class at McCurdy High School.

Classroom days are always difficult. Being outside is so much more fun and interesting. For class last Thursday, we brought part of the Rio Chama to McCurdy High School in the form of benthic macroinvertebrates. We collected these during our teacher training two weeks ago, and we found some really interesting ones.

We began class with a very short discussion of benthic macroinvertebrates, and then students were on their own. They selected samples, examined them under a microscope, and recorded their findings in their science notebooks.

Checking out the "bugs" under a microscope.
Checking out the “bugs” under a microscope.
Sample Benthic Macroinvertebrate.
Sample Benthic Macroinvertebrate.


Look at the gills on this mayfly!
Look at the gills on this mayfly!
One student's drawing of their benthic macroinvertebrates.
One student’s drawing of their benthic macroinvertebrates.


The students did a fantastic job with this activity, and we look forward to testing their skills in a few weeks on the Rio Chama when we have our all day field trip!


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!


Learning about Local Water

Last Thursday’s field trip with Ms. Berryhill’s Earth Sciences class at McCurdy High School was entirely water-themed and introduced our students to their local water.

We began at NMWC and revisited our last class activity- desalination. Students broke into groups of one or two and made solar stills. To encourage friendly competition and up the game, there was a prize involved- a gift card to Dairy Queen!

A student putting final touches on his still
This one is ready to go outside!
Four hands are helpful
These girls used their design from last week, altered to be appropriate for solar power instead of a stove.

Students only had one hour to complete this activity because we had a date to keep at the Espanola Waste Water Treatment Plant. This plant is responsible for treating sewage and waste water from houses in Espanola. Our tour was very informative, and we were pleased to hear that almost no chemicals are used to treat our water. UV light is used instead. The water is returned to the Rio Grande, but only after rigorous testing, and the water that goes back to the river is cleaner than the water already in the river!

Students got to visit the lab where scientists examine water at different stages of the treatment process. We observed the results of a test for E-Coli, and students got to look through a microscope at some of the water.

Examining water under a microscope
Results of an old E-Coli test

As we walked through the lab, I noticed a familiar-looking device on one wall. It was actually a still- the lab makes its own distilled water! I pointed it out to students, and they were able to guess what it was and explain it. Our students were also very familiar with some of the water quality testing that goes on at the lab. It’s just like what we did earlier this year!

This is a bit more complicated than the solar stills that students created.

After this tour, students came back to NMWC for one last activity. Again, everybody split up into groups. Each group was given a geologic cross section of the Espanola Basin, an excerpt from the National Climate Assessment on how climate change is projected to alter precipitation in the Southwest U.S., and listings for two local houses for sale. Each house had a slightly different water supply- either a cistern, a private well, or city water. Students had to determine which house they would buy if they wanted a long term investment (and if they wanted to have a trustworthy water supply in 5o years). In this exercise, geology, weather and climate, and water all play a role. Students were able to synthesize much of what we’ve talked about this year and apply it to a realistic situation!

After our discussion of real estate, students ran outside to check their solar stills.


These clever students put their device on the roof!

Judging this contest turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated, and with Dairy Queen hanging in the balance, the stakes were high. Two groups created quite a bit of water, but it had a salty taste, which means that they did not entirely desalinate their water (or maybe their still sloshed while taking it off the roof). In the end one participant had not only created about 1/8 of a cup of water, but the water was good enough quality to drink. The challenge was to desalinate the most amount of water, and since this still was the only one that produced fresh water, the winner was clear.

Both of these teams did a pretty good job.

At the end of the day, I think even the students were worn out, but everybody learned something! Next month… volcanoes!


Why Can’t We Just Drink the Ocean?

Many of our activities with Ms. Berryhill’s Earth Sciences class at McCurdy have related to water quality. Water is a critical issue in New Mexico. With decreasing snowpack and increasing water use, we’re headed for trouble. On two previous visits to McCurdy, students asked, “Why can’t we just take the salt out of sea water?”

“Well, it takes quite a bit of energy, and it’s expensive.” we said.

Why tell them this when you can show them?

This is exactly what we did with the students yesterday. First we discussed methods of purifying water. Some of these (like adding chemicals) just won’t work for taking the salt out of water. Most of the students quickly figured out that distillation would be a good method we could test in class.

We briefly discussed the process of desalination and compared the prices of desalinated water in different parts of the world, and then the students were free to create their own devices to distill salt water with the materials we brought. We had two main methods: one using a camp stove and one using the energy of the sun.

This iteration used plastic wrap to catch the condensed water. Unfortunately, the plastic wrap melted. The students replaced it with aluminum foil.
This group made an aluminum foil pipe to carry the distilled water down to a catchment.
This was a very creative system.
These students added ice to their pie pan to speed up condensation. When asked what they would change, they said they would put aluminum foil around the sides so that the steam didn’t escape.
There’s a coffee cup inside this kettle. This method made an interesting comparison to how clouds form (which we discussed last month).
One of the methods that used the sun to force evaporation. This was very effective.

After we finished building these devices, we compared them. Using a camp stove takes less time but uses fuel. The fuel for the solar version is the sun, but it takes more time. Either way, it takes quite a bit of energy to desalinate water!


Working on Weather

I love teaching all aspects of Environmental Education, but my very, very favorite will always be WEATHER.  I’m thrilled to get to share it with our fantastic students at McCurdy High School.

December can be a difficult time for planning sessions, since many schools have holiday events and/or exams. Due to the exam schedule, we decided to push our December field day up a week. Ms. Berryhill’s students came to New Mexico Wildlife Center for class.

We began class by discussing weather basics- What is weather? How do we define weather? Where in the atmosphere does weather happen? What’s the difference between weather and climate? Our students picked up this information quickly and asked some really fantastic questions. We discussed how climate change can be compared to a baseball player on steroids, and students asked about the real and fake aspects of some of their favorite weather disaster movies.

Students also learned the basics of weather forecasting. They put together a simple forecast using 850-, 500-, and 350 hPa charts as well as the previous day’s afternoon surface map and the data from the morning weather balloon launch in Albuquerque. Students had to predict the afternoon’s high temperature and the forecast for the next two days. It didn’t have to be an exact forecast- just the symbol that they would put on the 5 day forecast graphic if they were a TV meteorologist.

A student fills in the chart with his group’s forecast

The groups actually did very well- their weather forecasts were spot on, and their high temperatures for Santa Fe were pretty close. Below is the surface map for that afternoon. Two groups perfectly nailed the high temperature! How’s that for 3-degree guarantee?

2100 UTC surface map
2100 UTC surface map

After this forecasting tutorial, students split up into groups and worked through 8 different activity stations. These stations were hands-on demonstrations that highlight some of the more important aspects of weather and climate. Students could create their own groups (we had 5) and move at their own pace (since there were always stations open).

One station focused on albedo and the reflection of the sun’s radiation. One focused on seasons and why the Equator is warmer. One focused on convection currents and the movement of warm and cold water. Another had students calculating their carbon footprint. Students also created a cloud in a bottle and made lightning.

A student marvels at our cloud in a bottle
A density-driven circulation in a Tupperware
Students sit in the sun and use an IR thermometer to guess which pair of socks has a higher albedo

One of the biggest benefits to having class at NMWC was that the students also got to meet our 37 educational animals, including our peregrine falcon, Pippin.

Pippin, the peregrine falcon.

At the end of the day, the McCurdy students knew quite a bit more about both weather and native species of New Mexico than they did in the morning. Mission accomplished.