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.

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:

  • 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
  • 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

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