San Francisco University High School Program

San Francisco University High School Program

Over the past year, we witnessed the learning environment shift from the hands-on nature of the classroom to Zoom meetings and computer screens. Students are more than ready to re-engage in experiential science opportunities, and Headwaters Science Institute is excited to be back with students this fall, digitally in the classroom and in-person in the field. We were thrilled to kick the 2021-2022 school year off with the students of San Francisco University High School this September. As part of their Advanced Placement Environmental Science course curriculum, 28 students took part in an immersive in-class and field hybrid program to study how differences in abiotic conditions can affect plant biodiversity.
The program kicked off with Headwaters staff leading the students in two days of question asking activities and research plan development. Thanks to the hybrid nature of Headwaters programs, Headwaters staff and graduate student research mentors from both UC Berkeley (PhD candidate Ana Lyons) and San Francisco State University (MS student Leo Rodriguez) were able to join the students of SFUHS in their classroom remotely while still providing guidance and feedback on the student-driven research projects. Students developed diverse projects regarding how different characteristics such as elevation, slope, and soil chemistry affected plant biodiversity.

With the Marin Headlands of Golden Gate National Research Area as the backdrop for their field site, students worked in collaboration as research groups to collect the data needed to evaluate their research questions and hypotheses. A cool morning and light mist didn’t deter the students as they practiced techniques such as soil chemistry testing and quadrat sampling for plant biodiversity.

Each group analyzed their results and interpreted their findings to draw conclusions for their research question. The program culminated with student presentations to their classmates on their research.
This program, like all Headwaters’ programs, emphasized the importance of curiosity, communication, and collaboration in the scientific process. As one student commented at the end of the program, “I learned that I love fieldwork and that science is more collaborative than I would have thought!” Students in our programs improve their ability to apply the scientific method, gain exposure to professional scientists, and learn how to become a scientist themselves. 

We are so excited to provide these unique opportunities to students again this year. Teachers, if you are interested in a similar program for your students, please reach out to discuss options to best meet the needs for you and your students!

David Dimitrie

David Dimitrie

Program Director

Oakland School of Language

Oakland School of Language

This past week 7th-grade students from the Oakland School of Language, a dual language Spanish English public middle school in Oakland, California, came to the Clair Tappaan Lodge on Donner Summit for a snow science program with Headwaters. This was the first time many of the students had seen snow before and presented a very special opportunity for them to study the source of much of California’s water. One of the unique aspects of this program for Headwaters was that many of the students did not speak English. While some of our instructors could teach in both Spanish and English other instructors communicated to students using teachers as translators. 

Students investigate Donner Summit

One of the most powerful moments of this 3-day overnight program came out of students and Headwaters instructors dealing with this language barrier. This was centered around two students, who were creating a project around density and snow water equivalent in the snowpack. While waiting for their teacher to translate between them and their Headwaters instructor they started using Google translate on their computer. The group was then able to communicate directly with their Headwaters instructor and continue analyzing their data and creating their research presentation.

This system of text-based google translation worked quite well allowing their teacher to step back and spend more time with other groups. At the end of the program, these students walked up to their teacher and told him “See look what we did [refering to their presentation] and we did it all without you with an instructor didn’t even speak Spanish.” The teacher later described this event to Headwaters staff as “the best snubbing he has ever received.”

A group of three students conducting research on snow

Through their Headwaters program, these students not only completed a rigorous independent research project, but they also proved to their teacher and themselves that they could successfully complete complex tasks with someone who can only speak English. The pride they took in this accomplishment shows in their declaration of independence from their translator. Language barriers are massive and daunting hurdles, but these students were engaged in their research projects and met to this challenge with determination and a problem-solving mindset. While Headwaters programs typically don’t set out to help students break down language barriers, the critical thinking and self-motivation demonstrated here are exactly what we aim to pass on to every student we work with. 

One student is buried waist deep in snow as part of his snow temperature research

This program would not have been made possible without support from many members of the Oakland community, the Sierra Club, and Tahoe Donner XC. Thank you all for making this great educational experience possible.

Oakland School of Language

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.