This past week students from the Park Day School’s 7th grade joined Headwaters on Donner Summit for a snow science program themed around snow as a source of water. A majority of California’s drinking water comes from melted snow which also serves as a ecosystem sustaining water source during the hot and dry summer months.

Students collect samples in the field site on Donner Summit.

Headwaters staff challenged students to create their own original research projects around something that would affect the water they consume in Oakland. The students worked together in teams to create a creative array of different projects around this theme. Below are some highlights from the group work. 

A few groups of students noticed on arrival that the snow near the road was noticeably dirtier than the snow elsewhere around the field site and chose to investigate this further. They collected dozens of snow samples from near the road, in clean snow, and many areas in between. Students melted their snow samples and tested them for total dissolved solids (TDS), the concentration of ions like salts in water, as well as the clarity of the snow melt water to quantify how much dirt and organic matter was in the snow.

Students test their findings in their “laboratory” at Clair Tappaan Lodge.

This group hypothesized that they would find a linear decrease in TDS and increase in clarity as they moved away from the road. They found that areas within 8 feet of the road were significantly impacted with much higher TDS and much less clear meltwater while areas further than 8 feet showed very little effect from this human disturbance.  The group also found evidence that particulates from the road not only affected snowmelt water quality but also made the snow near the road darker and warmer causing it to melt faster. While the roads studied did not have salts applied to them, these students hypothesized that the increase in TDS came from the mechanical breakdown of asphalt and sand by car tires. However, they also found an unexpected result of this increase. In their sample sites downhill of the road, this team found evidence that pollutants from the road were entering nearby waterways. 

In their research presentation, these students discussed how the moderate decreases in water quality they observed on Donner Summit could be magnified further downstream in the reservoirs that hold much of the Bay Areas drinking water.  Their project also highlights the importance of wetlands, swales, and catchment ponds which filter sediment and clean water. 

Students share their findings through data analysis presented in this graph during their final research presentation.

This project is a great example of what makes Headwaters student programs so special. They start with students’ own observations and challenge them to explore their curiosity more deeply. Lead by their own investigations, students learn about the ecosystems they live in, how they work, and how to protect these important natural resources.

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