Urban School Ecology Program

Headwaters was excited to return to the Urban School of S.F. to help students conduct scientific research in the Rodeo Lagoon watershed. Over four sessions, we guided students through asking original science questions and conducting experiments to test their questions. Through this process, students not only learned about this unique ecosystem but also gained valuable critical thinking skills. Read on to learn more about their awesome research projects. An overview of riparian areas can be found in this blog post featuring a great article from Global Rangelands.

Field Site: The Gerbode Valley riparian corridor in Rodeo Lagoon.

While the focal question of this program was “What factors affect the riparian corridor in the Gerbode Valley ecosystem?” each group chose a different way to investigate this further. Check out their questions below.

Question:  How do soil nitrate and phosphate levels change with distance from hiking trails and rivers? Hypothesis: Soil between path and river will have the most nutrients because that is where the most runoff will collect.

Question:  What is the relationship between soil quality and plant diversity along a transect from riparian areas to upland areas? Hypothesis: There will be higher diversity in riparian areas of plants compared to upland areas because riparian areas have more soil nutrients allowing a greater number of plant species. 

Question:  How does biodiversity change across a lateral riparian transect? Hypothesis: As you move higher in elevation, biodiversity decreases as does soil moisture content because plants grow better when they have water to grow. Vegetation densities will likely decrease as we move higher.

Question:  How does the salinity of different areas affect vegetation?  Hypothesis: In areas with more salt there will be less plant growth.

Overall students found that areas closer to the creek had a higher diversity of plants and soils with greater amounts of organic matter. In waterways closest to the lagoon there was less dissolved oxygen, but greater plant coverage along the shoreline. Beyond the results of their research, students also gained critical science skills. Between pre and post-program surveys the number of students who responded as “very confident” in their ability to apply the scientific method increased by 45%.

North Tahoe Students Study Sugar Pines

Last week Mary Ellen, Dan, and Deb spent the week with the seventh graders of North Tahoe Middle School investigating the school’s native Sugar Pine population to prepare for week two, when they planted Sugar Pine trees with the Sugar Pine Foundation. The students overarching question was “What affects Sugar Pine growth?” and each group of students studied different aspects of the trees and their environment to investigate this question.

Students conducted pre-program reading before going into the field, which focused in particular on blister rust.

In preparation for the field day, the students formed groups and designed original research projects, centered around key research questions. Groups asked questions like:

-How does the blister rust affect the amount of beetles living in the tree?
-How does the soil temperature affect the amount of needles and cones near the sugar pine tree on the ground?
-How does the amount of beetles affect the amount of pinecones there are on a tree?
-Does the amount of bark beetle holes affect the amount of sap?
-Does a tree grow better on a flat surface or on a slope?

Students then went into the field to measure samples and record their findings on a graph. We had a wonderful time exposing these students to the local forests in their community.

We would like to thank all of the parent chaperones and Mrs. Anderson for inviting us into her classroom for the week. We can’t wait to hear about how the Sugar Pine saplings grow!

This subsidized program and others like this can only be made possible with help from our generous community partners. We would like to thank the Tahoe Mountain Resorts Foundation and Martis Camp Community Foundation for their support. The funding they provide allows us to continue giving more local youth an outdoor education experience.

Spotlight: Riparian Areas

We studied riparian areas with the Urban School this week. Here is some awesome information we shared with our students to get them thinking about the project!

What is a Riparian Area?

The term “riparian” is defined as “vegetation, habitats, or ecosystems that are associated with bodies of water (for example streams, springs or ponds) or depend on perennial or intermittent surface or subsurface water.” Put more simply, riparian areas are the green ribbons of trees, shrubs, and herbs growing along watercourses. Some riparian features we enjoy include the cottonwood groves where we like to picnic along sandy riverbeds, the green, shady areas next to the stream where we like to fish, and wetlands with ducks, tadpoles and dragonflies.

Riparian areas occur in a wide range of climatic, hydrologic, and ecological environments. Different latitudes and altitudes can support very different riparian communities. This is caused primarily by differences in soil, water and temperature. In the western United States, riparian areas occur from high elevation montane meadows or forests through intermediate elevation woodlands to low elevation shrublands and desert grasslands.

In the western United States, riparian areas comprise less than 1 percent of the land area, but they are among the most productive and valuable natural resources. There is a significant difference between the water-rich riparian areas and the arid uplands. Riparian areas are the major providers of habitat for endangered and threatened species in the western desert areas. In the humid east, the riparian areas are more similar to the uplands. In many areas, the separation of the riparian zone from the upland is not distinct.

Riparian Areas are Ecosystems. An ecosystem is a functional system that includes both abiotic part in the organisms, such as the plants and animals, and an abiotic part, which factors in their immediate environment such as soil and topography. These organisms interact both with each other and with their environment. Each ecosystem is unique because the organisms and the environment differ from other ecosystems.

The three main characteristics that define riparian area ecosystems are hydrology, soils and vegetation. These reflect the influence of additional moisture compared to the adjacent, drier uplands. Riparian areas are the transition zones between aquatic (water-based) systems and terrestrial (land-based) systems, and usually have characteristics of both. These characteristics make it habitat for a larger number of species of plants and animals.

Because riparian areas are at the margin between water and land, their soil was most likely deposited by water and could be washed away by water. Protecting soil, streambanks, or water edges from excess erosion is an important function of riparian plants. Thus, properly functioning riparian areas absorb the water, nutrients, and energy from big events and use them to recover from disturbances while improving water quality. The toughness of riparian plants with dense, strong root systems, stems that slow floodwaters, and maybe woody debris that forms pools, adds to riparian stability and habitat diversity.

Some riparian areas, especially those not functioning properly or in high energy – high sediment locations are very dynamic and disturbance-driven. Plant communities may be susceptible to rapid change, if soil and water conditions change dramatically. These changes might include:

Flooding or lack of flooding either temporary or more long term, as caused by beavers, or man-made structures;

  • Deposition of sediment on streambanks and across floodplains;
  • Dewatering of a site by a variety of means; and
  • Changes in channel location or elevation.

Significant differences in water availability due to precipitation between the eastern and western United States have led to major differences in these regions’ riparian areas. Riparian areas in the arid western United States have different plant composition but are also more lush than their adjacent uplands. Another important difference between the eastern and western United States that influences riparian areas are the pathways that water follows to reach streams. In the eastern United States, more water infiltrates the soil resulting in more subsurface flow reaching the stream and thus, more soil moisture. In the western United States, there is more overland flow reaching the stream.

Riparian Areas: Different but the Same

Although riparian areas can differ greatly, they all have several things in common. They are shadier, cooler, and moister than the adjacent upland environments. A wide variety of animals are attracted to these areas including insects, amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals. Suitable habitat (food, water, and shelter) is often provided in riparian areas to support these animals which may not occur in surrounding drier areas.

To find out more, you can read the full article here.

Our King’s Academy (TKA) Program This Fall

During the last two weeks, Headwaters Science Institute worked with the entire TKA 7th grade to help students conduct their own independent scientific research. The highlight of this program was the Friday field trip to Alviso Marina County Park where students put their own experiments into action studying the salt marsh wetlands in the South San Francisco Bay. A big thank you to all the parent drivers who made this program possible and we hope to see you all at the science presentation night at TKA on Thursday the 17th.

We are very excited to share some of the creative research projects designed by the students at TKA. Read on to hear about a few of these great research projects!

Group 1: Raymond, Aarav, Emily, Elisee

Question: How do the chemicals in the polluted pond affect the number of insects around it?

Claim: There will be more insects at the non-polluted pond than the polluted pond. It may be harder for the insects to find food at the polluted pond.

Group 2: Nathan Leong, Daniel Lee, Joanna Lee

Question: How does the amount of salt in the water affect transparency?

Claim: That the saltwater would make the water less clear. We think that the dissolved salt would make the lake denser and less clear.

Group 3: Andrew Scharfy, Natalie Thwaites, Tega. Sebeni, Christopher Wang

Question: How do Savvanah sparrows affect the population of crustaceans, snails, and grass.

Claim: They keep the populations from sky rocketing. We think this is true because the sparrows eat the crustaceans, snails, and eat the grass seeds, which prevents them from overpopulation.

Group 4: Camila, Connor, Kevin, Libby

Question:  How has the trash in the environment affected the water and the land around it?

Claim: The water will be polluted and some animals may not be able to survive there anymore. People leave trash on the streets and the trash can be transferred to the salt ponds. Then the trash brought by the current will be washed ashore and then pile up.

Group 5: Reid Black, Alex Mazin, Angelina Komashko, Jenine Fong

Question:  How does the nearness to an active saltwater pond affect the amount of grass?

Claim: We think that the closer we go to the saltwater the less grass there will be.  Because organisms can’t survive on salt.

Group 6: Sofia P., Caleb K., Brandon M., Italia A.

Question:  How do the herbivores affect the plant population?

Claim: We think that with more herbivores there will be fewer plants and fewer herbivores should lead to more plants. We think our claim will be true because organisms that feed off each other are most likely to change over time.

Group 7: Hengrui, Kenneth, Morgan, Natalie  

Question:  How does the distance away from saltwater affect the height of the grass?

Claim: We think the further away grass is from saltwater, the taller the grass will be. This is because salt might decrease the quality of the water the plants use. 

All of these TKA students have been working hard to graph and analyze the data they collected during their field day. Student pre and post-program surveys suggest that these projects help students gain valuable critical thinking skills. Between the start and end of the program students ability to correctly interpret complex graphs increased by 21% moreover, 97% of students report overcoming a challenge to complete their projects. All of us at Headwaters are excited to see their presentations on the evening of the 17th and hope to see you there as well.

Latitude High School on YouTube

We just added this great video to our YouTube channel showing more of what we do on Donner Summit. In this program, we worked with students from Oakland’s Latitude 37.8 High School during a 3-day-overnight on Donner Summit! Here are some insights from the school’s founder John Bosselman and physics teacher Regina Kruglyak.