Fall Donner Summit Program Blog

This Fall, Headwaters Science Institute led two separate programs with high school students from College Prep High School and Sacramento Waldorf High School. Both schools enjoyed overnight stays at the Clair Tappaan Lodge located on Donner Summit. Clair Tappaan Lodge offered these students a unique opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the Tahoe National Forest while having quick access to the large Van Norden Meadow wetland located just down the hill. Headwaters instructors introduced students to various ecological topics of interest in the area and set the students loose to start asking unique scientific questions of their own.

After formulating hypotheses for their research questions, students designed experiments before heading out into the field for data collection. The students research interest generally fell into tree categories: aquatic macroinvertebrate, water quality, and parasites infecting local trees.

A group of students from Sac Waldorf studied how the pine needles affected the pH of surrounding soils. They found that the soil underneath pine tree canopies was less basic than soils tested elsewhere and hypothesized that this was due to the acidity of the needles dropped.

Students from College Prep High School investigated aquatic invertebrate populations in the waterways of Van Norden Meadow. They found that the salinity of the water was higher where a dam had recently been removed compared to an area below the dam. They were surprised to find that the number of aquatic invertebrates was much higher in the same area above where the dam once was. Despite relatively high levels of total dissolved solids, the water quality was generally very good in this area. They hypothesized that they found more invertebrates here because this location was less prone to drying out in warmer months.

Students spent the bulk of their second day exploring the area and collecting data for their projects, before returning back to the lodge analyze their findings.

Each research group graphed their data and created a presentation to share with their peers informing them on their particular discoveries.

It was a fulfilling week spent with these students as they explored this unique ecosystem for the first time. In student exit surveys from these to schools, we were gratified to find comments left for us including “I hope we get to do more trips like this in the future,” and “science is way more fun than I originally thought it was.”

Headwaters Science Institute Goes to SF

Earlier in September, Headwaters Science Institute had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco to work with the 7th grade boys and girls of Convent & Stuart Hall. Headwaters instructors arrived on campus Tuesday morning to give an introductory presentation on the weeks ecology lessons ahead. Once acquainted with their science mentors, the students refreshed their memories on their previous weeks lessons on the history of their neighborhood park, the Presidio. Students brainstormed questions they were interested in investigating on their field day and organized into research groups in preparation for a full day in the park the following afternoon.

The Presidio of San Francisco, located just a short walk to the west of the school provided a wonderful opportunity to facilitate the student’s interaction with their neighborhood park in a whole new way. Many of the boys and girls had visited the 1,480 acre park for various other reasons, but this time around they explored the grounds from a different perspective.

On the hunt to find answers to their unique ecological questions, the students were excited to not only venture outside the classroom for the day, but also to use the various tools that many of them hadn’t been exposed to previously. Teddy and Will fought over who got to use the moisture meter to measure each new soil location and Ethan designated himself the “quadrant man.” Due to the schools close proximity to the park, the class was able to walk to and from the field sites in the park, meanwhile enjoying scenic views of the San Francisco bay and Golden Gate Bridge. It was a gorgeous day to be a scientist.

Once in the Presidio the students broke off into their research groups. Although instructors were always nearby to answer questions, trouble-shoot, and share in the excitement of discoveries, student groups largely worked independently. It was inspiring to watch as students came across speed bumps in their methods for collecting data and worked as teams to problem solve in new directions. Sometimes a whole new experiment would emerge and students would stumble upon a new area of interest.

Some of my favorite moments included watching the excitement of groups gathering data that they did not think would be very exciting. In particular, one 7th grade girls group I guided was jumping up and down, running to tell their friends when they discovered that a majority of their sticky bug traps had indeed caught several live insects. They took close up images of the wasps, flies, spiders, and ants and were inspired to identify their findings. Prior to their day in the Presidio, two of the girls in the group had expressed their fear of some of the insects they thought they would find, however their excitement surpassed their fear when they indeed caught those insects.

Both girls expressed their interest in doing further research in the future and schemed about what they could do better next time to capture an even more diverse specimen in the park! As a scientist it is always extremely fulfilling to facilitate learning experiences that can potentially encourage future interest in the sciences!

Assessing the Threat of Quagga Mussels in Donner Lake

This January I worked with the Marine Biology class at Truckee High School to pilot a project that studied the threat of invasive Quagga Mussels in Donner Lake. The class sidestepped into some freshwater experiments as an introduction to a segment on calcifying organisms and ocean acidification.

The background we gave to the students:

  • Quagga Mussels are an invasive species that is nearly impossible to get rid of and devastating to beaches and aquatic ecosystems.p9144275

Quagga Mussel Shells on a Beach in Michigan source: northerswag.com

  • Quagga Mussels, like many mollusks, make their shells out of calcium taken from the water.
  • The Lake Tahoe/Donner Lake area has long been classified as at low risk of invasion by Quagga Mussels because the water are naturally depleted in Calcium. Here is a map from the Ecological Society of America that shows a nationwide calcium based risk assessment.

quagga-risk-mapCalcium Based Risk Assessment Map from the Ecological Society of America

  • Recent research in Lake Tahoe has suggested that calcium levels in the lake are much closer to the minimum threshold needed for mussels to survive than previously believed. (You can find the article here https://peerj.com/articles/1276/)
  • Finally that in water low in calcium, concrete can decalcify leaching calcium into the water.

The Research Question:

Could leaching from concrete structures in Donner Lake meaningfully increase the risk of Quagga Mussel establishment?

The Experiment:

Given this was the first time the class had attempted to answer this question and that minimal research was available on rates of concrete decalcification the class decided to start by testing the rates concrete decalcification in Donner Lake. Before Christmas Break we collected water from Donner Lake and added cured concrete to it. Students took 500ml of lake water and added 200g of cured concrete. The students also decided to add another layer with different trials for the grain size of concrete. They crushed the 200g of concrete into large, medium, or small pieces for different trials to see how grain size affected leaching. Each trial had 3-4 replicates.

After Christmas Break the students came back to class and tested the calcium in the water mixed with concrete as well as Donner Lake water we had set aside as a control. We measured the Calcium in the water using a basic titration water hardness kit. (Teacher’s note: While water hardness is a measure of Calcium and Magnesium in the water, the teacher and I had previously tested a method that uses Sodium Hydroxide to precipitate out the Magnesium, but not the Calcium in the water. After testing the Hardness before and after precipitating out the Magnesium we found that there was minimal Magnesium present and it was reasonably accurate to use Hardness as a measure of Calcium.)

The Results: The lake water that had been treated with concrete had on average 3 times higher calcium levels than the control.

Treatment Average ppm Calcium
Control <40 ppm
Large concrete grains 80-120 ppm
Medium concrete grains 100-140 ppm
Small concrete grains 60-100 ppm

The range in the results reflect the resolution of the water hardness test. N=3 for the Control, Large, and Small trials, N=4 for the Medium trial.

The Conclusions:


Donner Lake Boat Ramp

While students recognized the potential for concrete to increase the concentration of calcium in Donner Lake they were split on the biological significance of this experiment. Skeptical students pointed out that adding 200 grams of concrete to 500mL of water is the same as adding 5 billion kilograms of concrete to Donner Lake. Other students recognized that while their experiment was not realistic on a lake wide scale, the parameters of this experiment could be similar to localized conditions around boat ramps. About 1/3rd of the students said that if the town of Truckee were to build a new boat ramp they would recommend using a material other than concrete, an equal number thought the town would fine to create a new boat ramp out of concrete, and the final third said they were unsure.

In wrapping up this experiment I brought up Isaac Newton’s quote “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” and how science is built upon people using and improving on each others’ research. With that in mind I asked the students to provide next years class with suggestions or ideas for experiments that could help answer this question further. The class wrote down a summary of their project and suggestions for next years’ class. Here are some of the future experiments they suggested:

  • Try testing the water near and far from the existing concrete boat ramp to look for evidence of localized conditions in the lake.
  • Use a water hardness test with higher resolution, ideally < 10ppm.
  • Try the leaching experiment with smaller amounts of concrete that might more accurately represent what could happen to Donner Lake.
  • This experiment was done in the winter, future experiments should examine if the season could affect the results.
  • Try testing different types of concrete products that could potentially end up in the lake.

Both the teacher and I were quite happy with how the first attempt at this experiment went and are very excited to see where next years’ class picks up from the research these students conducted. If you are interested with in conducting a similar experiment in your own classroom and have questions on any of the methods we used feel free to contact spencer@headwatersscienceinstitute.org.

Van Norden Meadow Provides Students A Unique Research Opportunity

Students from San Francisco University High School’s A.P. Environmental Studies Class recently took advantage of a unique research opportunity in the Van Norden Meadow, part of the Royal Gorge Property conserved by the Truckee Donner Land Trust. When the land trust acquired the property in 2012, they were required to mitigate Van Norden Reservoir, a man-made lake dating back to the 20’s. At the end of June, 2016 the reservoir was drained, exposing soils that have been submerged for majority of the 100 years. Three months later, this class came to Soda Springs to create independent scientific research projects around this uncommon ecological event.


Students measuring water quality on Donner Summit

The projects students conducted, ranged from surveying amphibian and aquatic insect populations, to comparing the water quality of isolated pools in the Yuba River and Castle Creek, and analyzing soil nutrients from the historic reservoir bed up to the nearby mountains.

The duo of Nick Michael and Kate Elkort compared levels of soil nutrients in the historic reservoir bed to soils in the adjacent meadow. Their project focused on the three main nutrients plants need to survive, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. They found that despite the surrounding area being incredibly low in biologically available Nitrogen and Phosphorus, the historic reservoir bed had much higher levels of both. Their data also found that both locations had comparably high levels of Potassium, which they attributed to the granite-dominated local geology. Soils in the reservoir bed also contained more moisture than soils in the meadow.

Below is a trip recap from Kate.

“In late September I spent four days near Tahoe in Van Norden meadow posing a hypothesis and creating an experiment that would attempt to answer my question. When I arrived at the Clair Tappaan Lodge, the Headwaters Science Institute instructors greeted us and debriefed us on what we would be doing. They gave us background information on the changes in the environment, and what resources and tools we could use to test our questions.

They informed our class that a dam had recently been opened and as a result, the lake had been drained and the lakebed was exposed. I realized this was a great chance to pose a question around this changing environment. The recently exposed lakebed captured my attention because it was a really rare opportunity to see secondary succession occurring naturally. I decided to research the nutrients in the lakebed soil and compare them to to the nutrients in the meadow soil. To answer my question, I took 25 soil core samples from the exposed lakebed and from the meadow and I suspended them in water to test them for potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. After completing the nutrient tests I concluded that phosphorus and nitrogen levels were significantly different between the meadow soil and the exposed lakebed soil.


Map of Kate’s Study Sites

The experience was one of the most meaningful, interesting and educational activities I have partaken in. It was so meaningful to connect what I had learned in class to a real ecosystem I was conducting tests in. It was also incredibly meaningful to create a question and experiments based entirely on an aspect of the ecosystem that I was interested in. I liked every aspect of my experience but I would say I had the most fun giving my final presentation. Even though it required work, making graphs, doing t-tests, and explaining how are data supports our original hypothesis, it was incredibly applicable and helped me engage in the material in a way that I have never experienced before. I really benefited from standing up in front my classmates and explaining how our data explained and supported our hypothesis. This process helped me grow as a student and improved my capabilities as scientist. Overall, I’m really grateful to the Headwaters Science Institute for allowing me to participate in such an amazing opportunity and allowing me to explore a question that I was really passionate about.”

Here some of Nick and Kate’s graphs and results of their statistical tests. You can see all of the students presentations here. Past Student Research



Making Not So Great Questions Work

This blog post offers a bit of reflection from our spring programs. Here Spencer shares his experience in dealing with a group of students who were excited about answering a less than stellar research question.

The struggle of what to do with students who are excited about a not so scientific topic is something I have discussed with numerous teachers. Below is an account of how I dealt this often frustrating problem.


Looking for male pollen cones

While building research projects with a group of 6th graders this past spring, I got to work with what could have been called a bad question. These students were tasked with creating research projects about the spring growth and phenology in pine trees. The students had a 2-hour session in class to design their projects, a 6-hour field day to collect data, and another 2-hour classroom session to analyze their data and present their findings. The first session was going quite smoothly until a group of students became interested in the question, “Can you tell the difference between a girl tree and a boy tree?” To be fair these students were in the middle of a unit on human reproduction and did not know that pine trees have both male and female reproductive organs. Try as I might to tempt them towards a question with more scientific potential, this question was where their interest lay and quenching this upwelling of curiosity would probably disengage them from this learning experience.



Male and Female Pine Cones Diagram from http://biowiki.ucdavis.edu/

Flash-forward to the field day, many of the trees in the field site had yet to fully produce the male pollen cones and while the female cones had developed they were located high up in the crown of the tree. As the students were starting to struggle with how to answer their research question, I asked them a few simple questions that helped turn their project around. It started with, “What can you observe here that relates to your research question?” After some thought a student answered, “Well, there are lots of male and female pollen cones from last year on the ground.” To which I challenged them further, “Is there a way you can adjust your research question to include what you can observe here?” Almost immediately someone asked, “Are there more male or female cones on the ground?” After a short deliberation on methodology, the group set out collecting data on what turned out to be a pretty neat project. You can read more about the groups findings at the end of the article.

unspecified-1The main point here is that instead of teaching with a heavy hand and forcing the students to abandon a seemly dead-end question by challenging them to be creative in the face of adversity and reframing their own questions, these students stayed engaged through the learning process and ultimately came up a really interesting research project. Through this, and other experiences teaching, I am convinced that any question, regardless of scientific caliber, can be turned into valuable educational experience.


Their Results: The group found 50% more male cones than female cones, which was contrary to their hypothesis that the female cones would be more numerous since they are larger and easier to find. While smaller pine trees often produce a higher percentage of female cones and larger pine trees produce more male pollen cones, the group surveyed a wide range in size of trees and should have found close to the same numbers of each. One of the reasons the group hypothesized that they found more of last years’ male cones than female cones was that the female cones were eaten. Remember there are far more resources allocated to, and thus nutrients in, an egg than a sperm. The group also examined the cones they found for evidence of consumption. They found that 30% of female cones were at least partially eaten and did not find a single male pollen cone with evidence of herbivory.


Terrarium Pollution Experiments

You may have read in our previous posts about the 5th and 6th grade students at Hebron Station School we worked with last year. Those 6th grade students had their research on bird feeding behavior published in the scientific publication BirdSleuth. On a recent trip back to Maine, I was excited to learn that those 5th graders, now in 6th grade, had used the same Headwaters teaching framework to conduct another great set of research projects. This time students used seedlings in terrariums as a way to study the effect of pollution on plants. The Headwaters team was very happy to hear that the teaching methods we have spent the last 2 years developing, have legs of their own and are helping students without any direct support from us.


Here are the terrariums in action.

Using the very same Student Driven Research Protocol from in their first program, students developed their own pollution incident related experiments. As part of a unit on climate change, students conducted these pollution experiments among other activities to meet the NGSS MS-ESS2 standards. Students also met the CommonCore standard RST.6-8.9. From rubbing alcohol, to cayenne pepper, and simulating a nuclear winter, they came up with a number of unique projects, for which they had to develop methods for themselves. Below is some of the students work.


This student measured the growth rate of oat and rye grass seedlings as they were “polluted” with rubbing alcohol. 


Here is a great hypothesis section from one of these projects. Students used different pollutants based on their own interests.


This student grew their seedlings in the dark to simulate a nuclear winter. While the plants kept growing, the student noticed, and recorded, how the plants changed color while in the dark.

The biggest reason I was excited to learn about these projects was that the teacher we worked with last year was able to use this framework in her own teaching without any support from Headwaters. As an organization, we talk a lot about offering more than a stand alone experience and sharing our educational tools with teachers through our programs. This is another great example showing that when you give a teacher better tools to educate with, you help every student they teach down the road.




Bird Feeding Behavior Publication

This past February, we worked with the 5th and 6th grade science classes at Hebron Station School in Hebron, ME to set up feeding behavior experiments with birds. The class had previously studied feeding birds as part of Project Feederwatch. Building off of students’ base knowledge of birds and the bird feeders they had outside their classroom window, we helped students create their own research projects to expand their knowledge on bird feeding behavior.


Students presenting their project in the 2015 BirdSleuth publication.

One of the goals of this project was for students to come up with their own original projects they could submit to Bird Sleuth, a student only scientific publication focused on birds. Bird Sleuth is put out by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and does a great job of making scientific research accessible to students. With this goal of publication in mind, as well as meeting the NGSS LS2-1 and the CommonCore MP.4 and RI.5.7 educational standards, we set out with these classes to turn their window feeder into a field research station.

In the first 60-minute session of this project we started by reviewing students’ background knowledge on birds and discussing the risks birds must balance when foraging for food. Once primed we ran students through our Student Driven Research Protocol to help students develop their own original research questions and begin planning out how to experimentally test their ideas. This first session concluded with students refining their hypotheses, writing out their experimental methods, and creating a list of materials needed.

Over the next few weeks students carried out their experiments, analyzed their data, and created presentations to give to their fellow students. During this part of the projects their teacher Mrs. Eusden worked with students with some support from the Headwaters Staff.

A few of the students submitted their project to the Bird Sleuth Journal and had their submission accepted. Their project looked at the response of feeding birds when predatory bird calls were played near the feeders. You can find the 2015 Bird Sleuth publication here. While most of Headwaters programs include some outdoor component, this project was especially neat because students were able to fully conduct their own field research project without ever stepping outside. This goes to show that you really can do real science anywhere.


Cake is a great way to celebrate

Finally, congratulations to Gwenna, Jacob, Brandon, and Ethan for building such a great research project!

Professional Development Workshop: Sharing why I love teaching

Here is a quick reflection on our recent Professional Development Workshop from our youngest co-director Spencer Eusden.

kids pick

Our recent Professional Development Workshop was a powerful experience for me, in that I was able to share with other educators why I fell in love with teaching. While there was little doubt that I would grow up to be a teacher considering both my parents and my brother are also teachers, it took me a while to find its calling. After enthusiastically obtaining a B.A. in Biology and Environmental Studies, I started working in outdoor education trying to spread my love of science. With a lot of help, I built lessons that gave students hands-on experience collecting field data as part of current research done by a local university. To my gross frustration, while the students collected valuable data, these lessons did little to engage students beyond them getting a day out of the classroom. Simply letting students participate in someone else’s research, as real and current as it may be, did little to make them want to be scientists when they grow up any more than before the lesson. Finding a solution to this problem, of how to engage students in real science, is at the heart of why I became involved with Headwaters. I first began to fall in love with teaching when we were piloting Headwaters’ teaching protocol. At its simplest these methods were: 1. Introduce students to a topic, 2. Let students come up with their own research questions, and 3. Push their projects towards academic rigor. In these first programs, I saw how much further students were willing to push the boundaries of their knowledge when researching their own questions than when they were collecting data for someone else. Moreover, students, who according to their teachers weren’t strong in the sciences, were engaged trying to find ways to test their hypotheses. Finally finding a way to share my enthusiasm for science with students was what sold me on being an educator and set Headwaters on its’ way.

DSC_0174Fast forward to our Professional Development Workshop this summer. With a year of curriculum development and several hundred student-days under our belts, we were finally ready to help teachers use student driven research in the classroom. Over the first two days of the workshop, I ran our teaching methods in the field with students while educators looked on watching them in action. It was really special for me to be able to show teachers firsthand how well these methods work. During the rest of the workshop, we helped teachers develop strategies for implementing these projects in their own classrooms and built custom curriculum around their interests. All told, the workshop was a great way for me to reflect on and share why I love being an educator and I can’t wait for the next one.

The “I” Word

If you are involved in education you’ve seen it. “Inquiry” is the gluten-free of the education world. Almost every new educational product or material comes certified that it contains “inquiry” and therefore its purported benefits. In a sea of Inquiry-based teaching strategies, it can be hard to figure out the most effective way at incorporating inquiry into your busy classroom. The following is a two-part guide towards maximizing the learning potential inquiry has to offer. At its root, inquiry is the way we study the world: ask questions, conduct experiments, and repeat until a Nobel Prize. The National Science Education Standards has about the same definition, “The diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work.” For those who haven’t had the opportunity to participate in such work, the exciting part is that there aren’t answers in the back of the textbook. Even the Internet and all of its awesome powers lacks answers to our questions. Scientists repeatedly run into roadblocks and need wrack their brains for ways to test their hypotheses. Moreover, every new discovery we make unlocks countless more questions to be answered and experiments to be done. This is experience is what “inquiry” represents and has subsequently spawned thousands of teaching methods trying to harness it. The closer to students can come to having an authentic scientific inquiry experience, the more effective the lesson will be at teaching content and skills. While young students may not be able to research to most groundbreaking topics, they can still ask original questions and come up with creative ways to test their hypotheses. Even if some scientist has already answered your students question in exhaustive detail, telling them such would only kill their curiosity and their desire to overcome obstacles that prevent them from answering their questions. Herein lies the key to successfully teaching inquiry, try not to answer students questions, even if the answer is seemingly obvious. Instead, ask them questions back, guide them towards discovering answers themselves, and push them to build off what they learned with new questions. Using inquiry effectively comes down to ownership. Once students feel that they are asking and answering their own original questions, then we as educators can push them to learn even the most difficult content and skills along the way. Next week we will delve into background information and effective strategies to prime students for inquiry-based projects.