Park Day School Investigates Snow Pollution

This past week students from the Park Day School’s 7th grade joined Headwaters on Donner Summit for a snow science program themed around snow as a source of water. A majority of California’s drinking water comes from melted snow which also serves as a ecosystem sustaining water source during the hot and dry summer months.

Students collect samples in the field site on Donner Summit.

Headwaters staff challenged students to create their own original research projects around something that would affect the water they consume in Oakland. The students worked together in teams to create a creative array of different projects around this theme. Below are some highlights from the group work. 

A few groups of students noticed on arrival that the snow near the road was noticeably dirtier than the snow elsewhere around the field site and chose to investigate this further. They collected dozens of snow samples from near the road, in clean snow, and many areas in between. Students melted their snow samples and tested them for total dissolved solids (TDS), the concentration of ions like salts in water, as well as the clarity of the snow melt water to quantify how much dirt and organic matter was in the snow.

Students test their findings in their “laboratory” at Clair Tappaan Lodge.

This group hypothesized that they would find a linear decrease in TDS and increase in clarity as they moved away from the road. They found that areas within 8 feet of the road were significantly impacted with much higher TDS and much less clear meltwater while areas further than 8 feet showed very little effect from this human disturbance.  The group also found evidence that particulates from the road not only affected snowmelt water quality but also made the snow near the road darker and warmer causing it to melt faster. While the roads studied did not have salts applied to them, these students hypothesized that the increase in TDS came from the mechanical breakdown of asphalt and sand by car tires. However, they also found an unexpected result of this increase. In their sample sites downhill of the road, this team found evidence that pollutants from the road were entering nearby waterways. 

In their research presentation, these students discussed how the moderate decreases in water quality they observed on Donner Summit could be magnified further downstream in the reservoirs that hold much of the Bay Areas drinking water.  Their project also highlights the importance of wetlands, swales, and catchment ponds which filter sediment and clean water. 

Students share their findings through data analysis presented in this graph during their final research presentation.

This project is a great example of what makes Headwaters student programs so special. They start with students’ own observations and challenge them to explore their curiosity more deeply. Lead by their own investigations, students learn about the ecosystems they live in, how they work, and how to protect these important natural resources.

Headwaters program with Head Royce Academy on Donner Summit

Meg and Dan just finished an incredible weekend with the AP Environmental Science students from the Head Royce School in Oakland. These 14 students and two science teachers spent the weekend at Donner Summit doing research projects. This group did 5 different research projects with wide-ranging topics, but all projects were based around learning more about the ecosystems on Donner Summit. 

Four girls, Hana, Nora, Aicha, and Chloe that were interested in soil nutrient distribution in the ecosystem. They focused on phosphorus because it is a limiting nutrient that can affect plant growth. They ran transects away from the lake for 50 meters and found that there wasn’t a big variation in phosphorus, but that is most abundant close to the lake bed. They concluded that overall the donner summit area is mainly depleted of phosphorus in the soil. 

Jihae, Olivia, and Siena studied algae in two different waterways, the Headwaters of the South Yuba River in Van Norden Meadow, and Castle Creek where it meets Van Norden meadow. They chose this topic because meadows and creeks are critical water sources home to a range of species. While algae can be a great food source for some animals and insects algae blooms can deplete the water of oxygen and make it hard for animals to live there. They found that both Van Norden and Castle Creek had low levels of phosphate, nitrate, and nitrite as well as algae. Overall, they concluded that both waterways are very healthy and functioning well. 

Matt and Daniel spent the weekend in the forest. They studied how do soil conditions (pH and moisture) affect tree growth and composition? They found that there was not a strong relationship between soil pH or moisture and tree size. They concluded that they could only test the pH of the very top layer of soil, but that the tree is mainly accessing nutrients from deep in the ground. If they were to try this again they would try to get soil samples from deeper. 

Awo, Tess, and Jonathan studied the differences in water quality and macroinvertebrate diversity and abundance between Van Norden Meadow and Castle Creek. They found that the water quality was very similar between the two sites, however, the temperature was significantly colder in the creek and that diversity and abundance of bugs was significantly higher in Castle Creek than in Van Norden meadow. They concluded that the creek is a better ecosystem for the pollution intolerant macroinvertebrates.

Lastly, Lu and Hannah studied lichen. Their research question was, “Do primary or secondary growth forests provide a better habitat for lichens?” They found that significantly more trees in primary forests have lichen growing on them.  Lichen are fragile and need healthy ecosystems to grow. They concluded that the primary growth forests have better overall health and a larger diversity of trees then the secondary growth forests. It is important to maintain our forests. 

Lu Paris will be presenting her research on Lichen at the Celebrate Science Symposium on October 20th.

Meg, Dan, Gene and Hanna (their science teachers) learned a lot from their diverse research interests. We want to give a huge thank you to Gene and Hanna for going the extra mile to allow their students to pursue their research interests and helping mentor them on their projects. 

Forest Lake Christian School Eighth Grade Program

The past two weeks Headwaters was in Auburn, CA working with the 8th grade at Forest Lake Christian School (FLCS) to learn about how water changes along the Sierra Watershed. Instructors brought water from the Truckee River, Santa Rosa, and Walnut Creek to FLCS for students to test to see how their school pond differed from water at the top and bottom of the watershed.

Some topics studied were changes in pollution, salinity, hardness, and pH across the various water samples. Students were surprised to learn that their pond was not as polluted as they thought after observing group 1 (pollution intolerant) macroinvertebrates living in the pond. 

This Headwaters program, like all our programs, was centered around student driven research, and 94% of students felt that their group was in charge of their own project. Dissimilar to traditional middle school science labs, where students are told explicitly what to do, FLCS 8th graders took ownership of their experiments from conception to execution resulting in almost all of the students feeling that they were in charge of their project.

View the program photo album here!