‘This was an amazing learning experience’: Spring field days show value of hands-on science research

‘This was an amazing learning experience’: Spring field days show value of hands-on science research

It’s been a busy spring of field day programs at Headwaters Science Institute, and we couldn’t be more excited to share with you what our students have been working on. 

From erosion research on the banks of the American River in Sacramento to examining the effects of fire on forests near Truckee, we’ve been thrilled to facilitate the ability of hundreds of students to get out of the classroom and into the natural world around them in beautiful Northern California and Lake Tahoe areas. 

“I really appreciated being able to fully design our own research – we came up with our own question, method, and process, with guidance from Headwaters Institute teachers,” one student from San Francisco’s Urban High School said of their field day. “Then, we learned how to analyze our data and results with information about statistics from Headwaters Institute teachers. Throughout everything, we were able to choose our main path and learn a lot, with support and assistance from knowledgeable and helpful guides!”

Here’s a closer look at the school programs we’ve hosted over the past couple of months. For more information on our school programs, whether it be one-day field days or multiple-day programs that incorporate field and classroom work, hit the button below. 

Truckee High School La Fuerza Latina program field day

Students from Truckee High School’s La Fuerza Latina program learned how to sample and identify invertebrates in this field day at Truckee Springs, which is part of Tahoe Donner Land Trust. 

Most of the students had not been to this location and were excited to explore. They learned how to use quadrats to estimate the percent cover of vegetation and then came up with their own question to collect data around. 

All first-generation students working hard in school and learning about potential career paths, they asked questions like “do certain birds prefer certain trees?” and “does the soil composition change with distance from the river?” 

“This program made me realize I positively would love to major in science!” one student from the program said. 

Thanks to Rotary Club for funding this program. 

Sacramento Country Day School 8th grade erosion field day

In this field day, students investigated the effect of erosion on the American River at the Clay Banks access. They analyzed factors such as sediment size, vegetation density, bank height, and water speed. Three graduate students from UC Davis helped Headwaters team members Beth Fitzgerald and Mary Ellen Benier.

“This was an amazing learning experience for all of us and something I remember when I am an adult,” one program student said. 

North Tahoe Middle School fire and human impacts field day

These students were challenged not only by their science research but also the weather, as a very snowy spring day greeted us in the field, as is often the case in science field work. Despite that fact, the students learned about scientific techniques used to measure forest characteristics that potentially relate to fire risk and human impacts in the forest adjacent to their school.

They learned how to transect, measure DBH (diameter at breast height), use quadrats, and assess tree health by quantifying insect damage. 

The students were able to synthesize their findings and relate them back to fire and human impacts. Some of the students even presented their research to their classroom. 

“I very much liked this program because you can learn very new interesting things that you wouldn’t learn anywhere else,” a program student said. 

Thanks to Truckee Tahoe Airport for funding this program. 

Urban High School ecology class, factors that impact riparian habitats field day

Juniors and seniors at San Francisco’s Urban High School spent two days in the field collecting data at Marin Headlands in Gerbode Valley. They were focused on questions about the impact of soil nutrients and soil moisture on plant biodiversity, the impact of salinity on plant biodiversity, and factors that influence the amount of native versus nonnative plants observed. 

“I learned how to do work in a real-world environment which was something I had not gotten an opportunity to do before,” a program student said. 

 

Fall 2021 Field Days

Fall 2021 Field Days

Headwaters was excited to put together a series of Fall Field Days for students in middle and high school. Over the course of four days, 12 students came out to explore the ecosystems around them and engage in outdoor learning after a year spent on Zoom!

We offered four different themed programs in September and October: meadows and water, environmental field science (for girls in science), ecology, and environmental science (for AP students). Students were excited to get outside!

Students learned to problem solve in the field, increasing their analytical and critical thinking skills. Students also learned about interpreting the data they collected, like what individual measures of dissolved oxygen and aquatic macroinvertebrate diversity mean for water quality in a stream. Hosting these programs outside of the classroom allowed the students to connect with the land and learn more about the local environment. We also talked about the scientific process, what it takes to be a scientist, and what careers in science can look like. 

Overall, students enjoyed their experiences with the Fall Field Days. Each student reported that they learned something during the field days that they would not have in a regular science classroom, and each also stated they like science more after attending the field days than before.

Thank you to our partners at the Truckee Donner Land Trust for allowing us to host these field days on their property – it provided a great opportunity for students to learn and explore the ecosystems around them. Also, thank you to our sponsors and donors, including Soroptimist International, the Truckee Tahoe Airport, Rotary Club of Truckee, and the Tahoe League for Charity. We were able to provide these programs to students in the greater Truckee/Tahoe/Reno area free of charge, allowing students who might face prohibitive costs of the program to attend.

Park Day School Investigates Snow Pollution

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.