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!

Trivia in Tierra Amarilla

River Classroom is a year-long project. We cover so much material, and every once in a while it’s nice to take a look back at the progress we’ve made. We’ve been doing just that in several of our classes for the last few weeks. What better way to see how much our students have learned than a trivia game?

Our 5th and 6th grade students at Tierra Amarilla Elementary really love competition. Our little trivia game brought out the brains of all of our students to prove just how much they remember of what we’ve covered this year.

Students were divided into teams. Each team got a white board, an eraser, and a marker. We kept score on the class board as teams had between 1 and 2 minutes to answer each question and write their answer on their team board.

 

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Discussing an answer
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Correct answers get big smiles
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Each team came up with their team name

Our students really enjoyed this game!

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As usual we were incredibly impressed at how much our students remembered. From benthic macroinvertebrates to the water cycle to parts of an atom, our students can explain a great deal of science!

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.

 

Watersheds and Erosion in Tierra Amarilla

In River Classroom we love to be outside. If we can’t be outside, we love to make a mess while we learn inside. At our last session, we did just that!

We broke into two groups to complete two different activities- one on watersheds and one on erosion. Our watershed activity began with a discussion of watersheds. What are they? Why do we care about them? Then students created their own model of mountainous terrain by crumpling up a piece of white paper. Students highlighted the “ridges” on their model in dark colors, used a spray bottle of water to simulate rain, and watched their washable marker run downhill.

This activity really clarifies the idea of a watershed, and students get to count the number of distinct watersheds in their model based on how their washable marker runs.

Our erosion activity tested three different types of soil to determine how soil characteristics affect erosion. The first sample was dirt mixed with rocks, the second sample was dirt with plants, and the third sample was just plain dirt.

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Students poured the same amount of water into each bottle and captured the run off to analyze the differences.

Students had charts in their science notebooks to organize their observations.

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The runoff from each sample was slightly different.

Students discovered that the sample with only dirt was much more susceptible to erosion. The run off from this sample was very dirty. The sample with plants had the cleanest run off. What does this mean for a riverbank with plants on it? The roots of the plants help hold the dirt in place!

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We had a great class studying watersheds and erosion, and we ended with discussions about how these concepts relate to water quality. In the spring we’ll be back to testing water quality on the Rio Chama and the Brazos River, and we’ll be applying the ideas of watersheds and erosion and how they affect turbidity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, pH, and nitrate levels.

Water Quality and Maps at Chama Elementary

Our River Classroom sessions are wrapping up for the Fall semester, and for our last class with our 4th and 5th graders at Chama Elementary, we planned two fun activities to end out the year.

Students divided into two groups for two different activities and then switched places. The first activity was to create a foldable to learn about the water quality parameters we’ll be testing on the Rio Chama later in the year.

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Folding, cutting, and drawing lines

We reviewed each of the parameters one by one as students filled in their foldables. We also came up with practical examples of factors that affect temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, turbidity, and nitrate levels at the Rio Chama near the school.

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Students were very proud of their foldables and did a great job remembering all of these new vocabulary words and what they mean for our local river.

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The second activity allowed students to expand on their knowledge of latitude and longitude as well as other important ideas about geography. Students explored a variety of different types of maps (physical maps, road maps, political maps, topographic maps) and solved critical thinking problems.

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Students applied basic math skills to calculating elevation change and used their imaginations to answer questions like “Find this latitude and longitude. What type of transportation would you be using to move through this area in January?”

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Our students did a wonderful job at each of the activities, and we can’t wait to expand on this knowledge in the spring as we begin testing water quality and exploring new areas outside.

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!