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!

 

Late Fall in an Aspen Ecosystem

Fall colors have come and gone, and while we’re still waiting for cold temperatures, the foliage around New Mexico looks like winter. Last Monday our students from McCurdy Charter School headed up to Aspen Vista to explore an aspen ecosystem.

Due to unseasonably warm temperatures this fall, the trail was mostly snow free.

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Heading up the trail
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Examining some bark

As we hiked we took periodic breaks to discuss the ecology of aspen groves. Many of these students cut aspen for firewood, and a few admitted to carving their initials in the trees in the past, but few realized just how unique and special these trees are.

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Exploring an aspen shelter just off the trail
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Enjoying the view through the aspens

We found some tracks and discussed the differences between canine and feline tracks.

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Hypothesizing about what animal made this track
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A small patch of snow with a gorgeous view of Santa Fe

We found a beautiful stream, which has now been thoroughly documented on social media.

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Photos for everybody!
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A view of the gorgeous stream

Finally, as we progressed up the mountain, we hit a shaded area with snow!

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After hiking about 3 miles up the trail, we were all ready for a lunch break.

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We also discussed the connections between animals and plants in the ecosystem and created sample food webs with producers, primary consumers, secondary consumers, and decomposers.

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Working on our ecosystem worksheet

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The whole group

It’s wonderful to have trips like this on a Monday- it sets the tone for the whole week. We had a great hike on a gorgeous fall day, and these students were excited to learn more about these trees that they see often. Once student even plans on planting aspen trees in his yard!

We can’t wait for our next trip with these fantastic Earth Science students!

Exploring a Piñon-Juniper Ecosystem

Last Monday our 7th-10th grade Water Scholars from Española began our week in the best manner possible- by hiking and exploring a new place outdoors!

We headed into a canyon near Abiquiu to seek out pinon and juniper trees and check out some of New Mexico’s unique geology.

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Hitting the trail

Our students have learned a little bit about geology in school, but we expanded their vocabulary to include the words conglomerate, fault, and rift.

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We found some gorgeous rock formations and a mini arch.

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Examining a stratigraphic diagram of the area and pointing out layers
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The mini arch

After a weekend of clouds and rain, everybody enjoyed being out in the sun.

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By lunch time, students were actually seeking out the shade!

 

We also discussed pinon and juniper trees and their importance to this ecosystem, as well as to our lives.

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Checking out the trees

After lunch, we filled out our ecosystem discovery worksheets and compared this area to the last place we visited.

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Some of the gorgeous Entrada sandstone we hiked through

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We had a fantastic hike, and we can’t wait for our next trip with these wonderful students!

Testing Water Quality on the Rio Chama

Testing water quality is critical for knowing if the waterway is suitable for organisms to thrive; so this week, our class analyzed the water quality on the Rio Chama through multiple sampling techniques.

Before we began testing water quality, though, we had a surprise for the students …

When I’m not teaching River Classroom, I also work in the ICU at NMWC, so I brought along a juvenile male Cooper’s Hawk to release back into the wild. I explained the natural history and ecology of Cooper’s Hawks to the students and then it was time to set him free!

Once the excitement settled down, we split the students into 2 groups. The first group collected benthic macroinvertebrates using a 1m x 1m square net with 2 students holding it on each side. Then two other students go 2m upstream from the net and kick up macroinvertebrates from the substrate, while slowly walking towards the net. This mode of collection is a version of the kick-sampling method.

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Kick-sampling in the Rio Chama for benthic macroinvertebrates
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Finished sampling and now getting ready to start picking off the benthics

Students then removed all the macroinvertebrates from the net using forceps and put them into a collection jar with isopropyl alcohol for the teachers to count and ID at a later time. Each sampling site was given a separate collection jar and GPS coordinates were taken at the sites as well.

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Picking off all the benthics from the net using forceps and patience 🙂
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Checking out and trying to identify the various benthics collected from the kick-sample

The second group learned all the different components of testing water quality through a fun activity of making foldables! We explained each component (e.g. pH, conductivity, etc.), what units they are measured in, and gave a brief explanation/example.

Once that task was complete, the students collected several samples of water from the river so we could test the various components using Vernier water quality probes.

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Miss Christy explaining how to safely and properly use the water quality testing probes
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Testing a river sample and reading the measurement
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All watching over the monitor and reading the values for a water quality test
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Ranger Austin Kuhlman came to talk with us about the importance of testing water quality

The students switched groups after lunch so everyone got a chance to participate in both activities.

This was our first ‘real’ river sampling session, so students familiarized themselves with the numerous water quality testing techniques. The class will be conducting at least two more river samplings this year, so stay tuned for what happens next!

Exploring an Aspen Ecosystem

Most people in the western U.S. would agree that the fall colors of the Quaking Aspen just can’t be surpassed. This species is also a very interesting species of tree, and it’s a very adaptable species, growing in diverse environments. Last week we took our 7th-10th grade Water Scholars group on a hike to explore an aspen forest above Santa Fe. Unfortunately, the majority of the golden leaves had already fallen to the ground, but we had a great time hiking and learning about this unique tree.

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The whole group before the hike

Along the way we took a few breaks to discuss aspens, where they can be found, why, and what we observed about the aspen forest around us.

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An interesting find along the trail
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Looking out over the aspen grove

Aspens are an important succession species, and they often are the first trees to regrow after a major ecological incident, such as a wildfire or an avalanche. The aspens along the Aspen Vista trail are growing in an area where there was a major wildfire in the 1800s.

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After hiking a little over 2 miles, we took a break for lunch and to fill out our ecosystems worksheet.

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Students took detailed observations of the area

Before we knew it, it was time to head back down the trail.

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A group photo before heading out

Students learned a great deal about higher elevation ecosystems, including characteristics such as annual precipitation, typical plants and animals, and possible effects of climate change on these fragile areas. We will continue to explore a variety of locations throughout the year so that these students gain a better understanding of how many unique ecosystems we have in New Mexico!

Atoms, Elements, and Molecules OH MY!

Atoms are the building blocks of everything– that was the main theme of our last River Classroom for our 4th-6th graders from Española. Our students learned that atoms are the foundation for everything in the world and that the periodic table is THE tool to use for exploring these atoms.

At the beginning of class, each student was given a copy of the periodic table and asked to write down all the information they could gather from simply looking at it. The class noticed that each atom was abbreviated to a symbol, certain atoms were grouped together, and each one had an atomic number. Great!

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Next, we had them find elements based on their atomic number. We explained that the atomic number provides information about the quantity of protons, neutrons, and electrons that each specific element contains.

At this point, our students learned that protons have a positive charge, neutrons have no charge, and electrons have a negative charge. Protons and neutrons can be found in the atom’s nucleus, but electrons are found around the atom in atomic orbitals. Each orbit can only hold a specific number of electrons. After students practiced drawing different atoms in their science notebooks, we assigned students the roles of “protons”, “neutrons”, and “electrons” and acted out a room-sized atom. They definitely had a lot of fun with this one!

We also divided students into pairs and had them model atoms using a felt square with painted atomic orbits and felt protons, neutrons, and electrons. We assigned each group a different atom to model. The kids liked this activity so much, they just kept asking for more atoms to model!

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After a lunch break, we split the class up into two groups; one group modeled an atom individually and the other group made “molecules” out of trail mix.

Students in the first group were assigned an element and had to model their element using an apple as the nucleus and raisins as electrons. The kids broke skewers into various sizes to demonstrate different atomic orbits. It was really great to see how engaged the students were with this activity and how they chose to float the “electrons” around their atom’s apple.

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In order to emphasize the point that molecules are comprised of different elements joined in a specific proportion, we used snacks to get their attention! Students were given the task of creating several different molecules using the ingredients for trail mix. We did this by selecting several molecules such as glucose (C6H12O6) and assigning each element a specific part of the trail mix (e.g. raisins are carbon, peanuts are hydrogen, etc.). Everyone had a blast getting to create numerous molecules—and getting to eat chocolate chips and popcorn while doing it wasn’t so bad either!

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Finally, as we do at the end of each class, we helped students relate our lesson back to the real world and apply it to our everyday lives. Our students understand that the periodic table, atoms, and molecules are important because they make up the foundation of everything in the entire world- without them nothing would exist!