‘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. 


‘They’re more excited, they’re more engaged’: BDOG highlights programs in underserved communities

‘They’re more excited, they’re more engaged’: BDOG highlights programs in underserved communities

The field research programs that Sacramento’s Barrett Middle School participates in each year with Headwaters Science Institute might just be for one day, but the impact lasts far longer – sometimes for a lifetime.  

Seventh-grade teacher Lori Sindel-Wawro said she commonly hears students talking about the research they participated in days after the program has ended. 

I would say 99 percent of the kids talked about it afterward because they were in the stream or in the field and figuring out stuff on their own,” Sindel-Wawro recently told Headwaters. 

Research takes kids out of classrooms

This type of hands-on research takes Barrett students out of the classroom, away from the city and into the outdoors in places like Donner Summit. Unfortunately, Barrett and many of its families don’t have the ability to afford these types of experiences on their own, and they struggle to fundraise for these trips each year. 

That’s where Headwaters’ participation in Big Day of Giving comes in, allowing schools in Sacramento’s disadvantaged communities, like Barrett, to continue to offer these important hands-on learning activities. 

“They’re more excited, they’re more engaged in the activity, they’re asking questions, they’re finding things, they’re discovering stuff,” Sindel-Wawro said. “They’re just excited. They’re not in a sterile classroom, and you’re out in the field and you’re researching something you’re interested in because you picked the topic.”

Kids research topics such as bird populations, insects near the water vs. in the forest, how moisture affects plant growth or how water temperature changes fish populations. 

“I don’t ever have kids come away saying that was a bad trip”

It can be life changing. 

More than 90 percent of students who participate in Headwaters’ programs say they learn something they wouldn’t in a normal science class. The percentage of students interested in a career in science increased by more than 24 percent to 63 percent after a program. 

“I don’t ever have kids come away saying that was a bad trip,” Sindel-Wawro said. “It inspires some of them.”

You can have a direct impact on the life of a child who’s interested in science but doesn’t necessarily have the opportunity to expand their knowledge by participating in Headwaters’ 2022 Big Day of Giving fundraiser. Raising enough money will allow Headwaters to continue to make these types of programs free to schools like Barrett Middle School.