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.

UHS biodiversity projects in Van Norden

Headwaters had a great time working with students from San Francisco University High School’s AP Environmental Science class at the end of September. This A.P. Environmental Science course joined us for an amazing weekend of science in Van Norden Meadow. Students studied water chemistry and how it relates to biodiversity in the wetland meadow. The class split into three groups with different research focuses.

The first built a project around how water chemistry in the wetland meadow is related to the biodiversity of macro-invertebrates. They found that the waterways were characterized by low levels of nutrients and dominated by aquatic macro-invertebrates that are highly sensitive to pollutants. You can read more about their project here. Another group of students looked at wetland soil nutrients and how it related to the amount of vegetation and the diversity of plants. Despite the wetland soils being low in key nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) the study area was heavily vegetated. Learn more about their research here. The third group studied how elevation affects soil nutrients. The group tested soil samples from different elevations around the meadow and on a hillside above the meadow. They found that most soils were deficient in Nitrogen and Phosphorus, but had plenty of Potassium. While the group did not find a correlation between elevation and nutrient composition, but did find a positive relationship between slope steepness and the amounts of nutrients found. The group largely attributed this to finding higher concentrations of nutrients in the flatter wetland meadow than on the steeper hillside.

A huge thank you to the Truckee Donner Land Trust for letting us study in Van Norden Meadow. This meadow is a valuable subalpine meadow habitat that is about to undergo restoration. There is a dam at the end of the meadow that had previously held water back in a small reservoir. The recently exposed soils of the reservoir bed made for a compelling research system where students got to study how well the meadow is adjusting to the reduction in reservoir size. It has been great to see all the improvements in meadow health as a result of the dam holding less water.


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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 12.05.00 AM


Assessing the Threat of Quagga Mussels in Donner Lake

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

The background we gave to the students:

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

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

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

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

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

The Research Question:

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

The Experiment:

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

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

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

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

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

The Conclusions:


Donner Lake Boat Ramp

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

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

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

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

Van Norden Meadow Provides Students A Unique Research Opportunity

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


Students measuring water quality on Donner Summit

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

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

Below is a trip recap from Kate.

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

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


Map of Kate’s Study Sites

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

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