Jeannette PA Program Recap

“Today I learned that bugs are cool.” 7th grade Jeannette Junior Senior High School student during their field day with Headwaters.


When Headwaters introduced the 7th and 8th grade students at Jeannette Junior Senior High School to the idea of conducting scientific research around their school’s campus, many of them were skeptical of what they might find. Dirt, trash, and crazy people were some of the things these middle school students first suggested when asked what they might find in the woods around their school. However, given that there are an estimated quadrillion (10^15) ants in the world, we hoped that on closer inspection the students might find some more ecologically interesting subjects.

For those unfamiliar with Jeannette, Pennsylvania, it is a small city of 9,000 half-an-hour east of Pittsburgh, comprised of a diverse mixed oak forest. What lives in the forests surrounding the Jeannette Junior Senior High School? It turns out a lot more than the students first suggested.

IMG_0550 (1)Before going outside, 7th and 8th grade students worked in small teams to come up with a research question and a prediction. The students then designed ecological experiments to test their questions. During the field day, these groups of students scoured their campus looking for evidence and collecting data. In total they found over 300 insects, 200 birds, thousands of plants, and two very cool deer skeletons. Moreover, they investigated the dynamic connections between these populations and the resources they need to survive, such as sun, water, food, and shelter.


Here are a couple of their findings:

20190404_090133One group of students investigated whether they would find more insects underneath rocks or logs to learn more about what makes the best insect habitat. While they did not find a difference between the mean number of insects under rocks versus logs, they did find more insects in grassy areas than under rocks or logs. They hypothesized this difference was because the grass was more damp than the other locations.

A separate group studied how the populations of birds were distributed among different habitats around their school from the field to the forested areas. They found 60 different birds in the fields and 95 in the forested areas in total.

Finally, many different sets of students surveyed the school campus for terrestrial insects. On average, each group caught just over 40 insects and 7 different orders of invertebrates. Millipedes, roly polies, and spiders were the most common non-insects caught. Groups generally found higher numbers of insects and greater invertebrate biodiversity in areas with higher vegetation density.

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 3.22.54 PMBeyond learning about the populations and resources surrounding their school, students also practiced valuable science skills during these projects. Between pre and post program student surveys, the % of students who responded as “Very Confident” or “Somewhat Confident” on their ability to apply the scientific method increased by 27.7%.

While groups were finishing up presentations on their results, we asked a few different students how this program was different from their regular science class. Their responses echoed the findings from the survey data. “We went outside and we experienced more”, “The best thing I did today was science”, and ”Finding this deer skeleton was more fun than normal science class”.

This program was free of charge for the school thanks to generous support from The Nature’s Way Market and WN Tuscano Agency, both of Greensburg, PA, as well as many other individual donors from the region. Thank you!


Entomology Digital Tool Kit.

Insects make for great study topics because they can be found in large numbers almost anywhere. Did you know there are an estimated 1015 ants in the world! Here are some tips and tools Headwaters has developed to help make insect related research run smoothly.

Feel free to use our scientific question brainstorming and experiment design worksheet to help students develop research questions and ways to test them.

1. Use active sampling techniques.

While sticky insect traps can be good for collecting samples overnight or longer periods of time, sweep nets work much better for student sampling. At Headwaters, we make our own using the following pattern. While you can buy larger sweep nets online for $30-50 each, these cost us under $2 in materials plus a couple minutes of sewing per net. More nets mean, more science, and fewer students standing around. To sample simply have students sweep these nets around vegetation for a standardized amount of time, ~30 seconds works great. Alternatively, insects can be found in large numbers by turning over rocks or logs and combing through forest litter. When using these techniques just be sure to have students standardize the effort in each trial.


2. Only identify insects down to the order level, if at all.  The diversity of insects is massive, roughly a million species have been described with the total number of insect species estimated to be 6-10 million. It can be easy for students to get bogged down in trying to identify what they are catching, so we only recommend students identify what they are catching if it is essential to their research question. If identification is necessary, we only recommend ID’ing down to the order level. Students still can assess biodiversity without even opening a guidebook by counting the different types of insects they can see with the naked eye. That being said if students do find an interesting population while sampling, giving that insect an informal name “shiny green beetle” and looking it up later is a great strategy. Just make sure to take lots of photos. Here is an easy guide that covers common orders of terrestrial insects from the John Muir Laws Guide to the Sierra Nevada.

3. Expect lots of other invertebrates too. Using these sampling techniques students will likely catch lots of other invertebrates like 8 legged arachnids (spiders and ticks), isopods (pill bugs), and lots of other arthropods like millipedes. Be sure to remind students that insects have 6 legs and a 3 part body. However, including the other invertebrates in their research can make for some interesting projects like, “Do we find more predatory spiders in places with larger or smaller insect populations?”

Example Insect/Invertebrate Student Research Questions


  • How does the air temperature affect the number of insects caught?
  • Which micro-habitats around our school have the greatest insect biodiversity?
  • Which orders of insects are most commonly found in grass versus wooded areas?
  • Does the timing of flower development affect the timing of insect hatches or population peaks?
  • What types of food, sweet, salty, or fatty attract the most insects?



As always, feel free to reach out to us at if you have any questions about doing an entomology related project of your own


Oakland School of Language Trip Recap

In mid March students from the Oakland School of Language came to Clair Tappaan Lodge on Donner Summit to conduct scientific research projects around the Sierra snowpack. With over four meters of snow on the ground, this was a memorable trip for these 7th grade students, many of whom had never seen snow before.


Research Highlights:

One group of students chose to investigate the fluorescent green wolf lichen growing on the trees around the lodge. They found that this lichen primarily grew on taller trees with textured bark, most commonly fir trees. After learning that this lichen grows only a few millimeters a year, this group wondered whether height was really a driving force behind increased amounts of lichen or whether height of a tree was just a good proxy for age.


Some students created their research projects around temperature changes within the snowpack. These groups measured snow temperature at different depths and times of the day to understand how snow can act as an insulator and how it reacts to changes in temperature throughout the day. These students found out that afternoon shade on snow decreases melt rates much more than shade on snow in the morning. They also found that in the morning the surface of the snow is the coldest and the deeper they go in the snow pack the temperature gets closer to zero degrees Celsius.


This school also featured Headwaters’ first bilingual presentations. About 25% of the students on this trip did not speak english as a first language, so Headwaters staff worked through bilingual staff to help students conduct their own research on factors that affect the rate of snow melt. For their presentations, these groups presented in their primary language while someone translated their presentation for the rest of the group.


We had a great time digging holes and exploring the snowpack with these students. From pre and post program surveys it appears they not only enjoyed the trip but also learned new skills. The percentage of students who said they were “very familiar” in scientific research increased by 22%. Furthermore, the 70% of students reported learning something they “would not have learned in a regular classroom”.


Many of these students had never been out of the city and into nature like this before, so getting to test first hand where their water comes from was an impactful experience. Support from several groups made this trip possible for the students. The Sierra Club gave this group a lodging scholarship to help cover room and board costs, Tahoe Donner Cross Country donated snowshoes to help students access their field sites in the deep snow, Bay Area Wilderness Training provided students with winter clothing to be comfortable out in the snow for multiple hours, and support from Headwaters donors allowed us to make this trip free for students. Thank you to everyone who made this trip possible.IMG_1472.jpg

What is Earth Day?

The first official Earth day was on April 22, 1970 when millions of people protested the negative impacts of industrial development. This was a time when there was growing concern about pollution and smog and its effects on people and the earth and concern over the loss of biological diversity and ecosystems. In July of 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were passed that year. The protests on April 22nd helped give the environment a voice. Even though there had been cries to help the environment for about 10 years with books like Silent Spring (1962), there was finally some real action from the U.S. as well as other developed countries around the world in the early 70’s.  

Earth Day is now celebrated around the globe each year on April 22nd. Reports show that more than 1 billion people in over 190 countries now take part in this civic action to help protect our earth.

People celebrate earth day in all different ways: political celebrations include marching, signing petitions to help the environment, and meeting with elected officials.  While direct action celebrations include environmental cleanups, planting trees, and making a personal change to conserve, it is also a day when businesses commit to making changes to their own policies to help the environment.

The Earth Day Network, the group that organizes earth day, chooses an earth day theme each year. In 2018, the theme was ending plastic pollution, in 2019 it is to help protect the species of the earth, and in 2020 they will be celebrating 50 years of Earth Day!  

What will you do to celebrate earth day? Headwaters staff and board members participate in local cleanups and we will all make our own commitments to the little things we can do in the upcoming year to help the earth. Our executive director, Meg, will once again be looking at her families plastic usage to figure out ways to decrease it even more.  It is important to take little changes that you know you can maintain instead of changing too many things at once. Even little changes make a big difference. As a group we will also look at our curriculum to see how we can make more environmental connections during our science programs.

This year on April 29th, just a few days after Earth Day we will host a Celebrate Science event that will feature student work on the California snowpack that provides a majority of the states drinking water.  

Please join us to continue the Earth Day celebrations and see how the environment and science is so integrally connected. 

Details on the Celebrate Science Event Here

Sustained Silent Thinking


At a recent talk at Sacramento State University, Dr. Corrine Lardy advocated for incorporating Sustained Silent Thinking into science lessons. While its literary counterpart Sustained Silent Reading is more well known, this teaching technique is a great tool for leading students through difficult concepts or inquiry-based lessons.

Why do students need Sustained Silent Thinking? During Headwaters programs, we bring in Ph.D candidates to supplement our instructional staff. While these experts provide students with expert knowledge and exposure to scientific careers, they occasionally describe concepts above the level of the middle or high school students they are working with. We use Sustained Silent Thinking as a strategy for students to reset, consider what they have learned, and crystalize the questions they still have. Although not every student group is asked to understand Ph.D-level science, in any learning situation, students of all abilities and learning styles benefit from time to reflect on and process new information.

Sustained Silent Thinking works for every student in the classroom. Some students may use the time to figure out what they do and don’t understand, while others may think creatively and let their minds explore. All students, no matter their ability, can participate. Best of all, it only takes a couple minutes of class time.

Tips for using Sustained Silent Thinking

  • DSC_6052Give students an open-ended prompt, such as, “How do you think competition for sunlight could affect plant populations in the park behind our school?”
  • “Sustained” doesn’t need to be that long—ninety seconds to three minutes is plenty.
  • Offer students opportunities to articulate their thoughts in a low-stakes setting before sharing to the class. Try these exercises:
    • Write down what you came up with in your science notebook.
    • Share your thoughts with your table group or elbow partner.




  • Repetition. Like any new skill, Sustained Silent Thinking requires practice. Try using it twice in the first lesson and a few more times during the following week.