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!

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 Cañones Creek

This week for River Classroom, we took the students to Cañones Creek, a tributary of the Rio Chama, to discuss the differences between a creek and river. This was the students’ first time at the creek, and they had a blast!

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Wading through Canones Creek

Before we began exploring, we talked about how a creek and river differ in terms of water characteristics, plant life, and animal activity. We also introduced a new term… invasive species.

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Looking over the NM Invasive Plant Species handout

As a class, we defined what an invasive species is as well as the impact it has on the environment it was introduced to and the ecosystem as a whole. Students were then given the task to try to find at least one of the eight invasive plant species that were on their handouts.

Next, the students were asked to find signs of animal life along the creek. Within minutes, the class found a cow skeleton. They also discovered an abandoned beaver den, raccoon and muskrat tracks, and a dead tree with numerous woodpecker holes. Before starting to look for benthic macroinvertebrates, the students recorded their observations of the creek itself as well as their findings in their science notebooks.

In previous classes, the students received a brief tutorial about benthic macroinvertebrates and their role in indicating water quality. So this time we went a little more in depth and discussed the various benthic species and in which types of water each would be found. To look for benthics, students examined the bottoms of rocks in a riffle above a deep pool in the creek. The most abundant species they found were caddisfly larvae, followed by midges. Once the students were done collecting benthics, we discussed what their findings tell us about the creek’s water quality; it was concluded the water was only fairly clean because there was a low diversity of benthic macroinvertebrates. The class was then asked, “Why do you think the water quality is only fairly clean?,” to which they responded, “Maybe because there’s a lot of cows using this creek since we found a skeleton and lots of poop.” BINGO!

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Exploring Canones Creek

Since the students had so much fun exploring Cañones Creek, it didn’t leave us very much time to collect data from the Rio Chama. To make the most of our time, the class divided into 3 groups with each group being responsible for one of the three tasks: find 1 invasive species from the handout, find 1-2 benthics, and find signs of animal life. Group 1 found a lot of Tamarisk; Group 2 found Caddisfly and Stonefly larvaes; and Group 3 found fox scat.

Based on our findings, our class concluded that the river had better water quality and more invasive plants than the creek. However, the creek had more animal activity.

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Examining Canones Creek

Overall, the students learned that a creek is different from a river because it is smaller/narrower than a river and does not branch out like a river does. Also, a creek will have more animal activity than a river because it safer for critters to access since it’s shallower and the current is typically slower. Lastly, the students learned that an invasive species is not native to that specific environment and has a negative impact on its surroundings.

We had a really great time exploring new land and learning new concepts. We can’t wait until the next adventure      🙂

McCurdy High School Explores the Rio Chama

There’s one River Classroom that we haven’t blogged about yet this year, and that’s McCurdy High School! High schools students have many demands on their time, so this group meets once per month to explore different aspects of Earth Science.

This month we headed to the Rio Chama to learn about riparian ecosystems.

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Waders in a row on a gorgeous fall morning

Many of these students had never been to the Rio Chama before, so we began by discussing the river, where it is, where it begins, where it ends, and where the water in the river comes from. To allow our students to explore the area a little, we discussed different types of maps and had our students create their own maps of our study area.

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Discussing what to include on the maps

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After each student had explored the area and created a map, we set out the maps on a picnic table. The students circulated around the table and noted similarities and differences.

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Once we had a better grasp on the path of the Rio Chama we began collecting scientific data. One group worked on testing water quality (temperature, pH, turbidity, conductivity, nitrate levels, and dissolved oxygen levels), while the other group collected and counted benthic macroinvertebrates. The groups switched places so that all students got to collect both types of data and record it on their data sheet.

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Measuring the conductivity of the water

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One of our fantastic McCurdy teachers points out caddis on a rock

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Getting a closer look at a benthic macroinvertebrate

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We had a really wonderful day and collected a wealth of scientific data that lead us to conclude that while the Rio Chama at this location isn’t pristine, it’s not in bad shape in many ways.

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We look forward to our next adventure with these students!

Meet Our 2016-2017 River Classrooms: Española Public Schools

Next in the line up for our 2016-2017 River Classrooms is our group of 4th-6th grade GATE students from the Española Public School District. This is a really unusual group because the students come to us from all of the elementary schools in the district. Not only are these students learning important science skills in an outdoor setting- they’re also learning to collaborate with other students from other schools!

Our first meeting with these students was on the Rio Chama below Abiquiu Dam. Flows on the river make scheduling a little tricky in the fall, but we wanted our students to get the feel of walking in the river in waders, and it’s a beautiful time of year to begin exploring this riparian habitat.

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Introductions

Our first activity was for students to create a map of the area by the river.

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Working on a map
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Each group included slightly different features on their map
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A few students included a compass rose, so we had to refresh our compass skills to make sure that north was drawn in the correct direction.
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A gallery stroll to examine all the different maps

After a quick break for lunch, it was time to pass out the waders!

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Lining up for waders
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This was the first time in waders for many of the students!
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After a review of wader safety rules, we headed for the river.

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A few of the students from last year began to pick up rocks and look for benthic macroinvertebrates.

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Checking out some midges and mayflies
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We also found some caddis houses
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Not everybody was excited to find leeches!

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We had a great first experience wading in the river, and after this introduction to benthic macroinvertebrates, we are ready to begin surveying next time.

As always, these students from Española and the surrounding area are a fantastic group. We’ve been working with students from this district for five years now, and the students continue to impress us. This will certainly be another great year of River Classroom.

Summer Science Camp #2

Another fantastic Summer Science Camp has come and gone, and once again we had an excellent group of kids! This camp was held at Abiquiu Lake, thanks to our partnership with the US Army Corps of Engineers. Campers came in from Santa Fe, Española, and Abiquiu to explore the habitats of Abiquiu Lake and learn some place-based science. This week was particularly hot, and we were fortunate to have the lake as a place to cool off!

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Decorating science notebooks and discussing the plans for the week

 

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Weighing a plastic cylinder full of rocks to estimate its density
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Testing our evaluation of the object’s density to see if it’s buoyant enough to float
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A ranger from USACE discussing buoyancy and water safety with our campers
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A camper getting fitted into a life jacket thanks to Abiquiu Lake’s life jacket loaner program
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Learning to tie a new knot that is useful for tying up boats
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Knot-tying session
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Cooling off in the waters of Abiquiu Lake
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Practicing teamwork

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Exploring the lake shore after a kayak excursion

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Trying out a new mode of transportation on the water
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Setting off on a hike in the Jemez mountains to learn where our water comes from
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Sketching a wildflower so that we can identify it later
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Watching a coyote move through a meadow
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Setting up emergency shelters
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Students set up their shelters with very little help!
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Emergency shelters turned into emergency ponchos as a quick afternoon shower passed over
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Roasting marshmallows at our camp out
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S’mores are one of the best parts of camping out!
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Enjoying a night in the tent

We had a fantastic week of camp. Why can’t we do this every week? Thanks to The Pantry Restaurant for their generous sponsorship of this camp. We wouldn’t be able to do this without our sponsors!

We do have one more science camp taking place this summer at Heron Lake State Park near Tierra Amarilla, and this camp still has a few openings! If you know a child in the area who would like to participate, send them our way.

2016 Chama Summer Camp