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.

 

Wrapping up Fall Classes

The holidays are quickly approaching, and this week we wrapped up our final River Classroom session before the winter break. Our 4th-6th grade students from the Española Public School District met at NMWC to present some fantastic projects and review everything we’ve learned this fall.

Students have been working on individual projects about elements on the Periodic Table. Many students opted to study fireworks and how different elements produce different colors. The chemistry of fireworks is a really interesting topic that fits right in with our lesson on elements in the Periodic Table, and students gave some really entertaining and informative presentations!

After each student had a chance to present his or her project, we moved on to our main attraction: a Jeopardy-style game in which teams of students answer questions related to the material we’ve covered this year!

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Categories included Water Quality, Riparian Ecosystems, The Scientific Process, Water on Earth, and Atoms and Molecules
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Miss Audrey explains the rules of the game

One of our most important rules: each team must come to a consensus before one group member can raise a hand to answer the question.

We tested the speed of students’ reflexes as they raced to raise their hands after the Jeopardy theme song stopped!

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Our students did a fantastic job and successfully answered almost every single question.

For Final Jeopardy the rules changed slightly, and each team had to make a bet for the number of points they could win or lose on each question. Teams had one minute to write their answer to earn their points!

In the end everybody in the room proved to be a brilliant scientist and remembered a great deal of what we covered during the year, so everybody won a mini Snickers bar.

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One of the most entertaining aspects of the game: the team names!

We also took a minute to recognize our fearless leader, Katherine. She founded the River Classroom program, and in the last five years she has made a tremendous impact on many students in northern New Mexico. At the end of this year, Katherine will begin a well-deserved retirement, but we are very grateful for her leadership and influence!

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Have a safe, happy holiday, and we look forward to resuming classes in 2017!

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!

Where in the World Are We?

With GPS technology built into almost all our handheld devices these days, it’s easy to forget how our device is able to determine just exactly where we are. So for this class, we put away our smartphones and learned latitude and longitude the good ole’ fashioned way — with a map and globe (well, sort of…)

First, we explained to the class that latitude lines run from north to south and longitude lines run from east to west on the globe. We also discussed that values have a unit of degrees (but not the same as temperature degrees) and are written as coordinates, just like how you see graphing coordinates in a Cartesian coordinate system!

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Miss Christy explaining latitude and longitude while the students take notes

Once the discussion ended, each student was given a balloon to inflate which acted as their “globe” for this fun activity. First, they drew the equator around the middle and from there, they labeled the North/South poles (90°). They then drew one more parallel line in both hemispheres to represent 45°. Before drawing longitudinal lines, we gave the students several latitudinal coordinates and had them point it out on their globe (e.g. find 55° N).

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Drawing the Equator and latitude lines on the balloon globes

Once the class understood that concept, we moved on to drawing our longitudinal lines. We explained the Prime Meridian is somewhat similar to the Equator in that it’s the “middle” (aka 0°) for the longitude lines. However, it differs because it can be placed anywhere on the globe but it must run through the North/South poles. Miss Christy explained to us that the Prime Meridian has changed its location throughout history and currently it’s positioned in Greenwich, London. Once again, students drew their lines on the globe to represent longitude starting at the Prime Meridian (O°) and going up to 180° on both hemispheres, making sure that each line crossed through both poles. We did the same exercise of having students find a given location on their longitude lines.

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We asked the class, “Can you figure out an exact location with just one coordinate?” Well of course not, you need BOTH coordinates of latitude AND longitude in order to find the precise location. So with this in their minds and their globes in their hands, we asked them to find a place on their globes using the given coordinates. We did this same activity using laminated paper maps. However, instead of the teachers giving coordinates, we had students provide the coordinates for latitude/longitude for their classmates to locate on the map. On top of that, students also picked a spot on their maps and asked their classmates to give the coordinates of their location.

To finish off the day, we introduced the class to handheld GPS units. We taught them how to properly use the device and then sent them on a treasure hunt. The students got into pairs and each group was responsible for hiding candy and writing down the coordinates of their hiding spot. Then they swapped their secret locations with another team, and it was their job to enter the ‘new’ coordinates into the GPS and go find their special prize!

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Marking coordinates in the GPS in order to find the special prize

By the end of class, everybody was able to use the GPS units to discover their treat!

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These GPS skills will be super useful later in the year for tagging our scientific data!