Science on Snowshoes

In April, DSC_0156students from the Met Sacramento High School and the Sacramento Adventist Academy came to Donner Summit to work with Headwaters Science Institute in order to study the Sierra snowpack that sources over 60 percent of the state’s drinking water. Students from both schools asked original scientific questions about the factors that affect snowmelt, water quality and availability. During their time on Donner Summit they conducted experiments and collected data in order to try to answer their research question. Headwaters instructors mentored students through conducting science projects while Tahoe Donner XC provided snowshoes that allowed students to travel around the field sites collecting data first-hand.

IMG_20170331_124225307_HDRIMG_20170331_115554109_HDRStudents from the Met Sacramento
High School spent three days at the Clair Tappaan Lodge on Donner Summit. Among the many research projects the class completed, two groups used dye to track meltwater movement in the snowpack. They found that snow temperature, aspect, and crystal type can affect how water drains through the snowpack. These students also found there is a temperature gradient in the snowpack with the snow closest to the group being the warmest. Separate groups tested meltwater chemistry looking at human impacts on water quality and changes in water pH IMG_20170331_100258351across different elevations. All of the students gained valuable experience conducting scientific research, analyzing data, and giving a scientific presentation. This trip was made possible by a lodging scholarship from the Sierra Club and the snowshoes donated from TDXC. In exit surveys, over 80% of students reported that the program positively impacted their view of science.

DSC_0138The Sacramento Adventist Academy DSC_0140program started in their classroom session where students designed research projects on topics that included: comparing pH and dissolved oxygen different
runoff pools and creeks, testing how human impacts can affect water quality, and how to assess tree health from pine cone development. The next day students traveled to Soda Springs, CA where they conducted experiments to test their research question. Many of the student had never seen this much snow before and very were grateful for the snowshoes. Back in the classroom, students used the data they collected to analyze their hypotheses and create scientific posters. One group found that snow at the bottom of the snowpack is more dense and less permeable to water. Another student measured how sediment runoff from unpaved parking lots can decrease water clarity. All in all the program was a big success.DSC_0166

A majority of students reported in surveys that they learned something they would not have learned in their regular classroom. Both of these programs would not have been able to happen without the Truckee Donner Land Trust, which conserved the land students studied, and Tahoe Donner, who donated the use of snowshoes.

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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



Met Sac Trip Reflections

“I have to go on a field trip with my school to Headwaters Science Institute,” I thought, when I first heard about the trip. However, soon after pulling up to meet Meg and Spencer, I found that it was actually a privilege to be with them. They are very knowledgeable people and know how to share their abundance of knowledge with us in an easy-to- understand way. They were extremely fun to spend time with and had just the right mix of funny jokes and professionalism.


Only a few of us in our class had ever done anything like this out in the field before. To start with we were lost and had no idea at all what to do. We worked in groups and learned about taking different types of samples and how to do certain tests. My favorite part was trying to find the macroinvertebrate in the water and try to identify them.

Being from Sacramento, where it never snows, we all had fun with our free time having snowball fights and bonding with each other. In the lodge they had multiple rooms with couches that were nice to hang out in. They also had a ping pong table which was a lot of fun to challenge friends on.


One evening, our group went on a night hike and it was amazing to experience the area in a new light. You could see the silhouettes of other people but not the details of their faces. With not being able to see the fine details you would have to listen more to your surroundings to know if someone was over in the dark of the shadow. On the hike we stopped to look at the stars, which were a lot more visible in the sky compared to back home in Sacramento.

We also went on a hike to see the petroglyphs, rock on rock art. On the way we went through some old train tunnels and learned some history. When we go to the petroglyphs some of the creative students made up stories about what all the different symbols meant, which were very engaging.


By the end when we all finished presenting on our various projects all of us were a little sad. We had all had so much fun working together and finishing our projects meant going back home. Most of us wanted to stay and were ready to do another project and stay a few more days. By the end of our time with Headwaters, the teachers that came with us were already talking about the next time we were going to come back and all the interesting things we would do.

-Ryan Kizer, Met Sac rising senior

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

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.


On Wonder in the Science Classroom

When was the last time you felt wonder? Was it a sense of joyous discovery, a previously unopened door, a new understanding or a palpable sense of possibility? Wonder, as a positive emotion, is hard to find the modern world. While the Internet provides gripping images and videos on demand, our physical world is more often experienced from behind a camera or phone than in first person.

Wonder as a response to science is generally experienced outside the classroom. Whether it’s through the Discovery Channel, written media or a science themed podcast, the feeling is transient or escapist in nature as we dip a toe into something crafted for our busy lives.

So where is the wonder in the science classroom?

agiordano_2016_scienceclass-1-2As science educators, we must have found wonder in the fundamentals of our content. We were driven to study science, to present it and to develop future scientists. Yet when faced with the curriculum I was taught in school, it appears to be a minor miracle that I ever was captured by it.

Faced with scientific histories, one-time use equations and predetermined labs, a science student of my generation was left to discover on the margins of these content expectations. These limitations are shifting now. Science teaching standards have moved away from broad and shallow content towards deeper understandings. The Next Generation Science Standards lean heavily upon fundamental connections between scientific fields and desire to imbue students with a sense of process, inquiry, discovery and fundamental understanding.

I first came across the idea of wonder as inspired by science when I was writing a curriculum for a “current events in science” class aimed at 8th graders at Sugar Bowl Academy. The module I was building is on de-extinction, or using modern genetic methods to bring recently extinct species back to life.

I stumbled across George Monbiot’s TED talk on Rewilding. A popular science author, he speaks about the absence of wonder in our modern world, and how repopulating ecologically “missing” species and fascinating megafauna could lead to a surge in natural wonder.

The large part of Mr. Monbiot’s talk seem ecologically relevant (even amazing), such as the trophic cascade and the landscape level effects that resulted from the repopulation of the Yellowstone wolves. Even the idea of engineering and reintroducing extinct megafauna like Pleistocene elephants, hippos and top-tier predators, while considerably difficult and controversial, is fascinating.

It seems so easy to capture the wonder of our students with ideas like these. A concept like de-extinction can serve as a platform to discuss Darwin’s observations, human impact, fossil record, the history of life, coevolution and myriad other topics. Complex and worthy topics lend themselves to the support of crosscutting concepts such as patterns, cause and effect, structure and function and systems. They also support practices that are broadly accepted as crucial like scientific literacy, skepticism and the interdependence of scientific principals.agiordano_2016_scienceclass-2

Worthy concepts can unlock student’s sense of wonder by stimulating their curiosity about cutting edge science. De-extinction is just one of the possibilities for doing so. Students are enthralled by real ideas, from the very large: the size and age of the universe, the existence of the multiverse, the connection between mass and energy, life on other planets and Mass extinctions, to the very small: the nature and unity of matter, the discovery of sub-sub-atomic particles, the Serial Endosymbiotic Theory and homeobox genes to name a few. These difficult and sometimes esoteric concepts are gateways to curiosity and wonder. Still, most of these ideas are ones that students can only explore theoretically, without getting their hands dirty.


The NGSS have us covered here too. By placing inquiry at the core of the science and engineering practices, the NGSS challenges us to put discovery at the core of our teaching. Inquiry labs allow students to design, to explore process, and to fail. Labs without predetermined answers might not seem on the surface like a gateway to wonder. However, when empowered to engage in the science process, rather than to follow instructions, students flex the true skills of scientists. They observe, hypothesize and problem solve. They predict and react to failure.

Students who prove or disprove their own hypotheses are actually discovering. When we allow them to develop their own questions within a system, they have not only modeled science, they have done science. Each of these tactics is risky. It’s time consuming to develop and implement open-ended inquiries. It’s risky for students to follow their own procedure and choose experimental variables to manipulate. It’s nerve-wracking to discuss scientific concepts at the edge of our own understanding. But in each of these cases, that’s where the real learning happens. These edges in student’s proximal development are not unlike the edges of scientific knowledge. And it’s here on the edge where wonder can kick in.