Girls Science Camp… The Science

The girls taking count of the aquatic macroinvertebrates at Webber Lake.

The girls learning about aquatic insects together.

Last week I wrote about all the non-science parts of a girls science camp.  To sum it up, an all girls camp is an amazing bonding experience! At Headwaters Science Camp the girls not only got to bond over all the normal teenage things, but they also got to bond over science. As Momo said, “It was really fun to be surrounded by smart girls who were interested in science.”  It was amazing to see a group of high school girls who were passionate about science all working together. The girls were adventurous with their research ideas and thoughts.

Carli holding a dragonfly at camp.

Carli showing her fellow campers how fun it is to hold bugs!

I loved how inquisitive they were; they took the time to learn not only from their instructors, but from each other.  It was interesting, while they all loved science, they had a wide range of interests in science. Alex, for example, loves birds. She always had her binoculars and was willing and patient enough to teach the other girls about the birds she saw. We had quite the list by the end of the week, everything from woodpeckers nesting in camp, to eagles, to pelicans, to countless songbirds. Carli on the other hand is pretty passionate about bugs, and made everyone a little more comfortable catching and observing bugs.They pushed themselves to make great research projects. I don’t know how different their projects would have been with boys around, but I know they would not have been as free with their thoughts and conversations about science.

The girls learning about bugs in Lacy Meadow.

Carli teaching her camp mates about the insects found in Lacy Meadow

Momo, wants to be a biochemist and was curious about water chemistry and wanted to spend time using the chemistry kit to test water. Jamie is very interested in water quality.  As an instructor and the leader of the camp my goal was the teach and mentor the girls on how to do research, but to not get in the way of their creativity or limit their ideas.

Water chemistry at Webber Lake.

Momo and Juju work together to process their water samples.

Jamie wrote to me after camp, “I am so grateful for the Headwaters Girls Science Camp; it taught me to dive into questions I have about the world around me. My instructors gave valuable tips and lessons, while also creating a safe space for everyone to learn and grow. My group and I researched water quality in the Webber Lake area, and tested for ammonia, nitrite, phosphate, and the pH, dissolved oxygen, and total dissolved solids levels.


Jamie enjoying the water quality tests.

I look forward to further research on water sources and want to expand to test for lead, chlorine, and mercury levels, as well as the different kinds of bacteria in the water. I’m curious about how humans impact their drinking water. I also want to find ways to improve the quality of water sources. Being able to research and collect data out in the field opened my eyes up to other scientific careers I didn’t realize existed.”

As the camp leader it was tempting to push the girls towards certain questions and topics, but in the end it was better to guide and watch how their passions translated into projects.  Jamie’s group studied water quality in different areas around Webber Lake.  They found that overall water quality was very good. While they tested many markers of water quality including: salinity, nitrate, phosphate, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and clarity, the biggest difference they saw was in pH. Some of the areas tested were significantly more basic. 


Dylan testing the dissolved oxygen levels in Lacey Creek.

The group hypothesized that this was because of granite substrate nearby. Carli’s group on the other hand was influenced by her love of bugs and they studied insects. Her group compared the macro-invertebrates in the forest and meadow around Webber Lake. They found that there was a higher density and diversity of insects in the meadow than in the forest, while the forest had less variation in the size of populations surveyed.

Regardless of what project they choose, they all learned how to do research; the girls learned how to make mistakes and use them to improve their projects, they learned how to work together, they learned to collect accurate repeatable data. Most of all, they learned how to be scientists!  I think they will all agree with this sentiment from Momo: “Doing science in the field was amazing!”

Research Independence lake from a boat!

Headwaters girls on Independence Lake getting help with their project from a Nature Conservancy Scientist.


Girls Science Camp… so much more than science

bonding at the lake

Girls science camp at Independence Lake.

I was so excited when I learned that Headwaters had the opportunity to partner with the Truckee Donner Land Trust to offer an all-girls science camp this summer. I know that getting more girls into science is important for the future of society and for the careers of girls interested in science.  I even wrote a blog post about girls-only science. But until the girls showed up for the first day of camp, I hadn’t really thought much about the other impacts that an all girls camp could have. Thinking about it now, this is surprising because I spent my youth going to an all-girls sleep-away camp that gave me friendships and memories that are still strong and important to me 20 years after my last summer. It is a time and place in my life that is so special to me that I thought my girls summer camp was unique. I hadn’t imagined being able to create something like that for other girls somewhere else.

Hanging out in the tent.

Hanging out in a tent time at Headwaters Girls Science Camp.

Preparing for the girls science camp, I was focused on details: how to take girls–some who had never been camping before–camping for six days; how to make them feel the most comfortable, what food they would want to eat, how much water we would need, whether they would be ok without showers, what science equipment we would need, how we should structure the girls’ days, whether all the gear would fit in our cars….  I emailed and talked to the girls’ parents about all their concerns about many of these same issues. I still didn’t spend any time thinking about how the girls would bond.

When the girls and parents arrived, it brought back a flood of memories of going to my own camp as a young girl. Arriving at camp had always made me feel excited for activities, time away from my parents, the mentorship of my counselors, and uninterrupted weeks spent with my camp friends. Camp friends are like no other kind of friends. With a group of just girls you can be silly, and fun, and be yourself. You bond in a way that you don’t get to in any other part of your life. As I sat there watching the girls arrive at camp, I realized that I was going to be able to help create a bonding environment like the one I had experienced at my own camp. I was going to be able to foster a place for the girls to be fun, and be themselves. I was thankful that I had planned some great experiences for their science projects and activities like kayaking and swimming, but really glad that I had left an openness in the schedule that was going to be filled with bonding time.   

Campfire time at Girls science camp

Hanging out around the campfire.

And it was.

One of our campers wrote to me after camp, “I became really good friends with the other girls, and we will still keep in touch long camp is over, maybe forever. We bonded over card games, beetles, and classic 80s songs. We had shared memorable experiences like kayaking, swimming at Webber Falls, and looking up at the night sky, filled with beautiful stars.” Another camper wrote, “It was fun to be surrounded by smart girls who were interested in science.”

I loved watching the girls bond. I was envious of their time together. Getting dirty, no showers, camp food, bug bites… none of it mattered… the hardships were bonding experiences. It made me want to be a teenager again, but I took my role as a mentor and stood back while they were having fun. I joined in with song when appropriate, I answered questions about life, or science, or camping; I pushed them to work together, to think… I loved being with them and being their mentor, and I hope that they can appreciate (even just a little) how special this time in their lives was/is.  As one girl said, “This camp was worth all the bug bites, one hundred percent!”

Girls learning from guest scientist Kristin Giordano.

Bonding time with snacks around the picnic table.

Thank you to the Truckee Donner Land Trust for partnering with us and for the amazing campsites on Webber Lake. It was the perfect spot to create a great camp experience. Thank you to Soroptomist International of Truckee Donner for the support for camp. And if you’re wondering about the science the girls experienced during camp, check out my next blog post!


Why is an all-girls science camp important?

Three San Francisco University High School Girls measuring water quality in Van Norden Meadow.

Girls working on research projects at Camp.

Why is an all-girls science camp important? Because there are too few women in science, and that shortage is a problem that can be solved.

Women make great scientists, responsible for everything from the discovery of the earth’s inner core to the development of the theory of radioactivity. Yet today in the United States, women make up only 15-25% of the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) workforce. Data shows that the gap is actually broadening.  Why are women not as likely to go into a STEM career?  Are they less capable? No, instead, studies show that girls are made to ‘feel’ less capable. This feeling can come from stereotyping, people stating or implying that they aren’t as competent as boys, or even simple things like the toys they are given and their options at home and at school.

A Quarry Lane student learning about soil moisture during her school field trip to the Sierra.

Measuring soil moisture during field research.

Because there are so few women working in STEM jobs, girls don’t see as many role models for themselves in these careers. If, as Marie Wilson said, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” then we have a problem. STEM fields include some of the highest paid jobs in the market. There is already a salary gender gap in the US between men and women, which will widen if women do not become more competitive in STEM jobs. STEM is the fastest growing job sector in the US. If girls want to be competitive in the job market, they are going to need STEM skills.

As a society we will lose out by not having as many women in STEM jobs. The need for future innovators is too high for us to afford leaving anyone out. Numerous studies have shown that groups with greater gender diversity perform better than single gender groups. If we want the workforce to maximize innovation and creativity, we need to actively close the STEM gender gap.

Offering an all-girls science camp that is run entirely by women gives those girls a chance to see and interact with their role models: female scientists. The camp also gives girls a chance to take intellectual risks. They aren’t getting graded, there are no boys to get in the way; they can just experience science and try their best.  While it isn’t the only solution to the problem, girls science camps are one step towards helping more girls become leaders in the sciences.

Two high school researchers searching for terrestrial insects in a Sierra meadow.

Looking for toads during a field survey.

UHS biodiversity projects in Van Norden

Headwaters had a great time working with students from San Francisco University High School’s AP Environmental Science class at the end of September. This A.P. Environmental Science course joined us for an amazing weekend of science in Van Norden Meadow. Students studied water chemistry and how it relates to biodiversity in the wetland meadow. The class split into three groups with different research focuses.

The first built a project around how water chemistry in the wetland meadow is related to the biodiversity of macro-invertebrates. They found that the waterways were characterized by low levels of nutrients and dominated by aquatic macro-invertebrates that are highly sensitive to pollutants. You can read more about their project here. Another group of students looked at wetland soil nutrients and how it related to the amount of vegetation and the diversity of plants. Despite the wetland soils being low in key nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) the study area was heavily vegetated. Learn more about their research here. The third group studied how elevation affects soil nutrients. The group tested soil samples from different elevations around the meadow and on a hillside above the meadow. They found that most soils were deficient in Nitrogen and Phosphorus, but had plenty of Potassium. While the group did not find a correlation between elevation and nutrient composition, but did find a positive relationship between slope steepness and the amounts of nutrients found. The group largely attributed this to finding higher concentrations of nutrients in the flatter wetland meadow than on the steeper hillside.

A huge thank you to the Truckee Donner Land Trust for letting us study in Van Norden Meadow. This meadow is a valuable subalpine meadow habitat that is about to undergo restoration. There is a dam at the end of the meadow that had previously held water back in a small reservoir. The recently exposed soils of the reservoir bed made for a compelling research system where students got to study how well the meadow is adjusting to the reduction in reservoir size. It has been great to see all the improvements in meadow health as a result of the dam holding less water.


Science on Snowshoes

In April, DSC_0156students from the Met Sacramento High School and the Sacramento Adventist Academy came to Donner Summit to work with Headwaters Science Institute in order to study the Sierra snowpack that sources over 60 percent of the state’s drinking water. Students from both schools asked original scientific questions about the factors that affect snowmelt, water quality and availability. During their time on Donner Summit they conducted experiments and collected data in order to try to answer their research question. Headwaters instructors mentored students through conducting science projects while Tahoe Donner XC provided snowshoes that allowed students to travel around the field sites collecting data first-hand.

IMG_20170331_124225307_HDRIMG_20170331_115554109_HDRStudents from the Met Sacramento
High School spent three days at the Clair Tappaan Lodge on Donner Summit. Among the many research projects the class completed, two groups used dye to track meltwater movement in the snowpack. They found that snow temperature, aspect, and crystal type can affect how water drains through the snowpack. These students also found there is a temperature gradient in the snowpack with the snow closest to the group being the warmest. Separate groups tested meltwater chemistry looking at human impacts on water quality and changes in water pH IMG_20170331_100258351across different elevations. All of the students gained valuable experience conducting scientific research, analyzing data, and giving a scientific presentation. This trip was made possible by a lodging scholarship from the Sierra Club and the snowshoes donated from TDXC. In exit surveys, over 80% of students reported that the program positively impacted their view of science.

DSC_0138The Sacramento Adventist Academy DSC_0140program started in their classroom session where students designed research projects on topics that included: comparing pH and dissolved oxygen different
runoff pools and creeks, testing how human impacts can affect water quality, and how to assess tree health from pine cone development. The next day students traveled to Soda Springs, CA where they conducted experiments to test their research question. Many of the student had never seen this much snow before and very were grateful for the snowshoes. Back in the classroom, students used the data they collected to analyze their hypotheses and create scientific posters. One group found that snow at the bottom of the snowpack is more dense and less permeable to water. Another student measured how sediment runoff from unpaved parking lots can decrease water clarity. All in all the program was a big success.DSC_0166

A majority of students reported in surveys that they learned something they would not have learned in their regular classroom. Both of these programs would not have been able to happen without the Truckee Donner Land Trust, which conserved the land students studied, and Tahoe Donner, who donated the use of snowshoes.

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Met Sac Trip Reflections

“I have to go on a field trip with my school to Headwaters Science Institute,” I thought, when I first heard about the trip. However, soon after pulling up to meet Meg and Spencer, I found that it was actually a privilege to be with them. They are very knowledgeable people and know how to share their abundance of knowledge with us in an easy-to- understand way. They were extremely fun to spend time with and had just the right mix of funny jokes and professionalism.


Only a few of us in our class had ever done anything like this out in the field before. To start with we were lost and had no idea at all what to do. We worked in groups and learned about taking different types of samples and how to do certain tests. My favorite part was trying to find the macroinvertebrate in the water and try to identify them.

Being from Sacramento, where it never snows, we all had fun with our free time having snowball fights and bonding with each other. In the lodge they had multiple rooms with couches that were nice to hang out in. They also had a ping pong table which was a lot of fun to challenge friends on.


One evening, our group went on a night hike and it was amazing to experience the area in a new light. You could see the silhouettes of other people but not the details of their faces. With not being able to see the fine details you would have to listen more to your surroundings to know if someone was over in the dark of the shadow. On the hike we stopped to look at the stars, which were a lot more visible in the sky compared to back home in Sacramento.

We also went on a hike to see the petroglyphs, rock on rock art. On the way we went through some old train tunnels and learned some history. When we go to the petroglyphs some of the creative students made up stories about what all the different symbols meant, which were very engaging.


By the end when we all finished presenting on our various projects all of us were a little sad. We had all had so much fun working together and finishing our projects meant going back home. Most of us wanted to stay and were ready to do another project and stay a few more days. By the end of our time with Headwaters, the teachers that came with us were already talking about the next time we were going to come back and all the interesting things we would do.

-Ryan Kizer, Met Sac rising senior

Donner Trail Lahontan Cutthroat Trout Project

IMG_3831Mrs. Reed’s K-1 class at Donner Trail Elementary in Kingvale, California has been working with Headwaters and a couple of other non-profits this spring to raise Lahontan Cutthroat Trout in their classroom. Lahontan Cutthroat trout are native to only a few rivers and lakes in Western Nevada and the Lake Tahoe region of California and are classified as “Threatened” under the Federal Endangered Species Act. The trout eggs were provided by the Trout in the Classroom project and SWEP (Sierra Watershed Education Partners). The students received 150 trout eggs on April 19th and have watched the eggs develop into Alevin (first stage after the eggs hatch, they can’t yet swim) and now into Fry (they have started swimming). When all of the trout reach the Fry stage they will be released into the nearby Donner Creek at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee, California.

DSC_0045Students were interested in a number of complex questions about the trout, realizing that they are able to learn about Lahontan trout in general by studying this small sample within their classroom.

Here are the questions the kids came up with and some of their hypotheses:

How many will survive? So far 12 fish or eggs have died and roughly 138 fish will be released next week. It is a good thing that trout lay so many eggs (hundreds at a time). If 12 people babies died, it would be a lot. People only have one baby at a time, but they also have a much higher survival rate than fish. Fish have a lot of babies, but not all of them survive.

DSC_0023Will they all hatch and develop at the same time? They began hatching two days after they arrived and the last eggs hatched on the sixth day after they arrived in the classroom. They did not all develop on at the same time. The first fish moved from the Alevin stage (meaning they got fins and mouths) on day 13. On day 14 a few more were swimming. By day 16 there were about 10 fish that had moved to the Fry stage. The rest of the fish still remain in the rocks and continue to develop. We learned that they develop pretty slowly and that each fish is a little different. Even though their eggs were laid on the same day and we have been raising them all in the same place, they don’t all hatch together.

Why are the trout important? The trout are important because they have allowed us to learn about trout. We could never see trout eggs in the wild because they are so tiny and they live on the bottom of the river, where it would be difficult and dangerous for kids to go. These trout are especially important because DSC_0014they only live in some rivers and lakes near us. They are Threatened, meaning that there aren’t that many of them left in the wild. We are hoping to help the trout by raising them in our class. We think more of them hatched and turn into fry than if they were in the wild. We hope they can swim well enough for them to survive once we release them.

 We learned that the trout need to be raised in very cold water like the lakes and rivers that they live in the wild. We also found out that they need to have lots of oxygen in their water. The trout need to live in the dark because the light can hurt them. In the wild they live on the bottom of the rivers and lakes where it is dark. They need to have clean water to survive. Our teacher has to change out their water every few days. It is hard work raising trout, but we have learned a lot and done a good job because so many survived!

Make sure you check out their amazing class video! To see more photos go here. Click to see the class on Science Friday #takeasample. To hear them on the air listen here, they are about 13minutes in.

Green Fields Research Reflections


Green Fields student collects snow to test for human-derived pollutants

Over the course of the week that I spent in the Sierras with Headwaters Science Institute, I was challenged to explore my own surroundings, make conjectures based upon observations of the natural world and assimilate a self-guided study while working with my peers.  This is not to say, however, that we did not also have ample direction and guidance from our patient and knowledgeable Headwater Science Institute directors, the experience was just so different from what one normally receives in a classroom because of the fact that it was largely up to us to run our work.  

On our first day of the trip, we hiked a ways into the alluring, snow-bound forest around our lodge with snowshoes on to begin exploring our surroundings and gathering information with which to build our research projects on.  We looked at many different things; layers of crust in the snow, moss formations on the surrounding trees, depth of snow in varying areas, the difference between pine and fir trees.  After we explored for a while, we returned to the lodge and began brainstorming ideas for possible research projects.  Working in teams of 3-5, along with the help of the Headwater Science Institute directors, we were able to settle on a question which each group member had adequate interest in.  This part of the experience was especially intriguing for me because as a student, I rarely have the chance to truly create a project based around something that I observe in my world and am interested in.  


Scientific research meets winter wonderland

My group and I decided to research human’s effect on snow, specifically looking for pollutants levels in the snow taken from different areas with varying amounts of human contact.  As you can imagine, the following days were a flurry of trekking to surrounding areas, digging through many feet of snow, taking many samples, melting countless cups of snow, measuring and recording.  All of the Headwater Science Institute directors were impressively knowledgeable on basically any science related question that we asked them, and helped to motivate us during times of low energy for our research.  During the following week that I spent in the Sierras, I learned more about good leadership and learning to work well with others than I could have ever learned in a classroom.  By the end of the week, every group had done large amounts of research along with an equal amount of data gathering and analysis.  

While my own group’s results were somewhat inconclusive, it has opened the door to further possible research and evaluation, and given me confidence in my classmates and my own strong ability to conduct and direct a self-made research project.  The multitude of positive memories of that came from my week-long stay with Headwaters Science Institute will stay with me for many years to come, and I cannot thank Spencer, Mary-Ellen, and Meg enough for giving me the opportunity to explore the world I live in to a greater extent than I could in any other setting.

-Lucy Edelen, Green Fields School, Tucson, AZ     

Changing the Status Quo in Science Education

At Headwaters Science Institute, we are very focused on science education innovation. We believe deeply that the way science has always been taught can be improved upon. Sometimes it feels like our biggest challenge is getting education stakeholders (pretty much everyone in our society falls into this category in some way or another) to recognize that science education, as it currently exists, is far from optimal. Once someone accepts that premise, it’s relatively easy to get them to consider how our Student Driven Science concept is actually far better for students’ than the status quo. It’s just our human tendency to embrace what we are already familiar with, regardless of its efficacy, that is such a big barrier to change.


So anytime we see examples of educators or policy makers recognizing the lost opportunities represented by traditional science education, let alone providing an innovative way of improving kids’ learning opportunities in the field, we’re pretty excited. Recently, this NPR piece about a science education innovator from the University of Colorado caught our attention. The article profiles Stephen Pollock, a physics professor at CU Bolder, and some of his epiphanies about the state of science education. The one that jumped out to us the most was Pollock’s opinion that, “Lectures don’t really work. They leave most people without a solid grasp of even basic concepts.”

While it’s not hard these days to find educators who agree with Pollock’s sentiments about lecture-based teaching, the degree to which he was willing to invest in substantively different teaching models really struck us. Rather than look for solutions that were incrementally better than the traditional methods, Pollock decided to do something totally different that radically changed the course of his academic career. Instead of continuing his research in nuclear physics (which would have been heartily supported by his department and his university), he decided to focus on how students learn physics and on developing ways to teach it better (which nearly cost him the chance to become a tenured professor—talk about resistance to change!).

Here is where Pollock’s innovations diverge somewhat from HSI’s. Instead of focusing on protocols for teaching science to high school students, he devoted attention to training undergraduates he calls “Learning Assistants” to become innovative science teachers.

The article also highlights the need for highly qualified secondary school science teachers. A broader outcome of Pollock’s work has been creating a group of college graduate science majors who are more likely to go on to become science teachers. We’re excited by the prospects of having more science teachers out there with a deep understanding of the subject they are going to teach and the willingness to try creative strategies for helping their students learn the most they can in the science classroom.


We believe that the day will soon come when Pollock’s contribution to science education—Learning Assistants—meet our ideas for improving science education—Student Driven Science—in classrooms around the country. And the article has good news about that prospect too!

According to Valerie Otero, of CU Boulder’s School of Education, who studies Learning Assistants as they become classroom teachers, “’It[the LA concept]’s spreading like wildfire.’” “The LA program is now being copied at 88 universities around the country,” and already there are an estimated 3000 LA’s working in classrooms around the nation, teaching tens of thousands of students.

HSI salutes Steven Pollock and his legions of Learning Assistants for believing in a new vision for science education and for doing something concrete to bring their vision to fruition.

Why Teacher Trainings are Important

Teaching can be really scary. For new teachers or those without exceptionally strong backgrounds in their subject, it can be even more daunting. Teachers in these situations are usually relieved when one of their students gets an answer right—so much so that they potentially miss out on one of the biggest learning opportunities for their students: discussing what makes a given answer right or wrong.

I know from experience that it is all too easy to settle for students getting the right answer. When I first taught human physiology labs in graduate school I was in way over my head. I had very little background in physiology and suddenly I was expected to give a 20-minute lecture, run a lab, make and grade quizzes, and grade lab reports each week. I wasn’t very confident with the material, so when a student raised their hand to answer or ask a question I could only say if they were right or wrong, I couldn’t really go into depth or engage them in a discussion. I didn’t want students to know that I didn’t have a deeper understanding of the subject, so I really focused on what was right instead of explaining why when students were confused. Students who were great at memorizing the material did great, but I couldn’t help the ones who were struggling. Moreover, at the time I didn’t realize that I was being ineffective. I thought I was teaching my students the things they were supposed to learn.

Looking back now I realize how much better I could have been if I was willing to expose my limitations to the students and if I was willing to find a deeper understanding of the material with them. However, I would never have thought of this at the time because all of my teachers always seemed to know everything. Plus, as far as the university was concerned, I was only expected to relay information directly from the book and help my students get the right answers, and I was doing just that. So what was the problem?

At some point near the end of that semester I started to worry that the students were not going to make very good nurses (most of them were taking the class as part of their nursing major) if they couldn’t really understand how the different aspects of physiology connect. I decided that I had better get a better understanding of the material so that I could push my students to dig deeper.

Before I taught, I could have used more training both in content and in how to teach by getting students to problem solve more. However, these failings of my first semester as a TA helped me evaluate myself and work to address some of my problems. I really grew as a teacher because of this process and it ended up being a good thing for me, but I’m not sure that many teachers get the same opportunity.

In retrospect, this early experience as a teacher helped lay the groundwork for the ideas that became Headwater Science Institute. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered how important it is to give students the chance to dig deeper in the content, to ask their own questions, and try to use experiments to find answers to their own questions. At HSI we strive to offer students in our programs opportunities to question and evaluate their own ideas and answers. Likewise, our teacher training workshops are designed to show teachers the power of meeting students at the edge of their understanding. Our processes help teachers guide their students to deep learning, not simply prompt them for the right answer.

And that can make all the difference in how effective a teacher is in helping her students learn and understand.

*The idea for this post was inspired by the story of a math teacher on an NPR Ed blog.


Headwaters Science Institute Director working with Katy Yan of the Bentley School.