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!

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.