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.

 

 

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.

 

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!

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!