Research Field Science Program at  McKeesport Area High School

Research Field Science Program at McKeesport Area High School

Headwaters completed a very successful Introduction to Research Field Science Program at McKeesport Area High School with 30 10th-12th grade environmental science and biology students! The program aims to foster scientific inquiry and hands-on learning experiences for students and 100% of students reported that they gained new skills in problem-solving during this program. 

On Tuesday, April 9th, students engaged in a preparatory session with Headwaters, focusing on question formulation and methods development in anticipation of their field day. Divided into five groups, students crafted research inquiries ranging from the effects of total dissolved solids on amphibians to the impact of human interaction on biodiversity.

The following day, Wednesday, April 10th, students embarked on a field trip to Cedar Creek Park in Belle Vernon, PA. The students went to the field despite recent rainfall and the remnants of flooding. They demonstrated remarkable dedication to field data collection, and most groups surpassed their data collection goals! With enthusiasm and resilience, they navigated muddy terrain, fell in the creek at times, and to their surprise even encountered frogs and salamanders. All the groups were trying to better understand the plants and animals in the park and the effects of human activity on the ecosystem. 

Back in the classroom on April 11th, students analyzed their data and presented their findings to peers. Notable discoveries included the relationship between light exposure and tree size, the correlation between water speed and amphibian populations, and the influence of human activity on biodiversity.

Impressed by their students’ achievements, Marla Hayes, their teacher, commended their commitment to scientific exploration. The program also benefited from the invaluable support of mentors from Seton Hill University, Duquesne University, and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who shared their expertise in ecology and environmental science with the students.  One student said, “I thought it was really cool how we got to go out and collect real data, using professional tools. Our instructors were very helpful with problem solving.”  100% of the students reported they learned something they wouldn’t have normally learned in class. 

“This was the first time any of these students had been to Cedar Creek Park, and most reported a heightened interest in science and nature,” Meg Seifert, Headwaters Science Institute ED said.

One student said, “I enjoyed the freedom we had when we were in person collecting data. It made me feel very capable.” Headwaters looks forward to continuing to inspire future generations of scientists!

I enjoyed the freedom we had when we were in person collecting data. It made me feel very capable.

McKeesport Student

Headwaters Science Institute is thankful to Nature’s Way, the Tuscano Agency, the Community Foundation of the Alleghenies, and local donors for their generous contributions, and to Cedar Creek Park for their help planning the program and providing a great field space for the students. Without all of this support this program would not have been possible. By providing students with firsthand experiences in nature, the program aims to ignite a lifelong passion for science and environmental stewardship.

Meg Seifert

Meg Seifert

Executive Director

Virtual Field Notes From Headwaters’ Research Experience and Digital Data Science Camp

Virtual Field Notes From Headwaters’ Research Experience and Digital Data Science Camp

Summer Research Experience

For eight weeks this summer, 26 students participated in the Headwaters Summer Research Experience, going through the scientific process. With topics ranging from electric vehicles to ant behavior, these students worked hard all summer long to create some fascinating, complex topics! Students pursued topics they were passionate about for one reason or another

I wanted to be able to study something I am passionate about, which is dance

My family has been impacted by Lyme Disease and that really drives this research

Students worked closely with Headwaters through class and office hours and were guided by professional science mentors who bring expertise and experience to working with students.

It was wonderful to provide high school students with the opportunity to create, design, conduct, and write up a scientific research project. Students were equipped with knowledge regarding research questions given their environment and accessible materials. With creativity and patience, students examined databases, water sources, air quality, and many other topics throughout their local areas. Throughout the data collection process students traveled within their home areas to measure plant density, survey college students, and study microbiological growth in petri dishes. These students ran the gambit for topics, creating captivating and significant data that was later analyzed through Data Classroom.

As the course came to an end, students finished writing their manuscripts and worked on presentations that they gave to their peers, mentors, Headwaters staff, parents, and friends. Our presentation nights were all lively and students did a fantastic job presenting virtually and fielding questions from the audience. Students worked hard to ensure their science communication skills were as effective as their data collection and research question development skills.

At least 12 of these students are going to pursue publishing their research project with the Journal of Emerging Investigators!

One student works on mapping domestic cats to understand exercise impacts. 
As part of a microbiology project, this student meticulously creates her different replicates. 
One student is doing research on the impact of tannins on plants.
Searching for microplastics, this student was able to borrow a microscope from a local school.  

Digital Data Science Camp

The digital data camp was held for the first time in August. Over the course of two weeks, students learned several objectives pertaining to data science and how it impacts their daily lives. From the beginning, students learned what data science is, what career opportunities there may be, and how it impacts their everyday lives. We discussed forms of artificial intelligence that they may interact with on a daily basis including Siri, Alexa, or other voice command AI bots. Students were surprised to learn that data scientists can be found in almost every field from medical science to non-profit organizations! After identifying fields they might be interested in the future, we discussed how data science will play a role in that industry as well. Students shared how they were surprised to know that there were so many different opportunities in the world of data science, no matter their passions.

Students learned to code, walking through this new tool to flex their data visualization muscles, and create graphs and graphics showing different realities from their datasets. Students took the reins in the second week as they identified topics to explore and present.

Students chose topics from fintech to automated driving and began searching for open-source databases to pull CSV (comma-separated values) tables. While working on individual student projects students learned about their specific topic, and how data science impacts that industry. Identifying safe, reliable, complete, open-source databases proved difficult, but students persevered. They worked hard to identify proper questions, databases, and analyses that provided insightful data visualizations for their mini-presentations. This was another fantastic group of students who were dedicated to learning and capped off a wonderful program with a great presentation night!

Watch all of the students’ presentations!

Sign Up the Spring Research Experience

We’re excited to have a new cohort of students pursuing research topics in the spring and you can be one of them!

Courtney Kudera

Courtney Kudera

Data Analyst and Research Experience Manager

Courtney is the Data Analyst and Research Experience Manager. A recent graduate from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, she is excited to share her passion for science and data knowledge with Headwaters. Originally from Wyoming, she is excited to make an impact in science education at Headwaters. In her free time, she can be found trail running, painting, doing yoga, or reading.

Headwaters Research Experience Students Investigate the Importance of Biodiversity

Headwaters Research Experience Students Investigate the Importance of Biodiversity

One of the most important tasks biologists face today is understanding the factors influencing biodiversity loss. While we have an understanding of the primary drivers that lead to species’ population declines like habitat degradation, invasive species, overexploitation, pollution, and climate change, we still need to understand the magnitude of these influences on ecological interactions. Human population growth, increased consumption, and resource inefficiency are pushing species to the brink of extinction, and the extinction of species stresses interconnectedness of ecosystems. Emphasis on the number of species and their population sizes is primarily of focus but species and healthy systems also provide ecosystem services, which benefit our water, food, air, and more. In the U.S., more than one-third of all crop production relies on insect pollination and many pollinator conservation efforts focus on the decline of native bee populations, highlighting the importance of biodiversity to our agriculture system.

Western snowy plover, a small shorebird blending into the rocks on a beach

In the Headwaters Research Experience, we help students understand the importance of biodiversity and the ecological interactions between plants and animals. Throughout the sessions, we typically have around 20% of students conduct a project related to investigating how pollution, climate change, and human activity influence biodiversity. What’s unique is that these students choose locations close to home! When students do this, it builds a stronger connection between them and their local environment. We encourage students to dive deep into the species they can potentially find within their local area. 

A small toad in grass

Are there threatened or endangered species close to home? What are their roles? Are there invasive species in the area, and are they benefiting or harming the native species? We encourage students to think about these questions to help understand on a deeper level the importance of the current situation. The research undertaken in our program connects students to the environment. Students who go into the biological sciences build on this strong foundation. Not to mention these biodiversity-focused studies get students out into the natural world and showcase a small sample of what field work entails. Whether students are studying microplastics, agricultural run-off, human activity, differences between urban and rural regions, or water quality, there is a project to fit everyone’s interest as they explore the topic of biodiversity.

California condor, a large black bird with bald head, flies over arid landscape.

This week for Headwaters’ Back to School Fundraiser, we’re highlighting endangered species! Donating to Headwaters helps us plan and run the Research Experience and students pursue projects that spark their curiosity and contribute to science. Your support also helps us provide Lunch with a Scientist talks to students around the country. Thank you!

Headwaters Research Experience Students Explore Climate Change

Headwaters Research Experience Students Explore Climate Change

Climate change is an extraordinarily important topic as it impacts all life on the planet in various ways. Weather patterns and regional climates changing over time isn’t a new phenomenon, but the rapid pace of change caused by human activity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the severity of the consequences is what alarms scientists.

There are a few unknowns, namely how severe consequences will end up being. We could see ecosystem collapses due to biodiversity loss because of a failure of organisms to adapt to the new bioclimatic conditions they face. We are already seeing higher frequency and more severity from extreme weather events and also every day sea level rise, both threatening Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and areas around the world.

Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina

There is no doubt that our world today has been shaped by our past and that this is a very complex issue, with controversy surrounding the topic from every angle. Many Headwaters Research Experience students are passionate about climate change and choose to explore it and its impacts for their projects. Charlie and Kian participated in our Spring Research Experience and had different approaches to studying climate change.

Charlie was primarily interested in how land temperatures are related to the incidence and strength of hurricanes. Charlie aggregated temperature and hurricane data over the past 20 years, and he found a significant relationship between temperature and hurricane frequency, but not between temperature and hurricane strength. This finding went against his initial hypothesis, and he concluded that while the increase in temperature has caused a higher incidence of hurricanes, it has not necessarily influenced the strength. It was an eye opening experience for Charlie and like many times in scientific research, he ended with more questions than he started with!

Kian wanted to approach the impacts of climate change in a different way. He did this by investigating how the predicted ecological niches of spider monkey species change through 2070. He used the Community Climate System Model, which uses previous climate data to simulate climate conditions in the future and Ecological Niche Models to predict species’ ranges. Given current climate projections into 2070, Kian found all spider monkey species within his study will experience a reduction in size of their suitable bioclimatic niche but to varying degrees. While all species are impacted by climate change, variability exists and some benefit while some could face tough futures.

We have many students considering the damage humans are doing to Earth’s climate and they’ve looked at climate change from many different angles! We always encourage students’ curiosity about these, and all, topics and hope that their research increases their understanding of the nuances of the issues. 

This week for Headwaters’ Back to School Fundraiser, we’re highlighting climate change science! Donating to Headwaters helps us plan and run the Research Experience and students like Charlie and Kian pursue projects that spark their curiosity and contribute to science. Your support also helps us provide Lunch with a Scientist talks to students around the country. Thank you!

Students Explore the Importance of Water

Students Explore the Importance of Water

The importance of water should never be understated! It is a vital component of all life-sustaining processes and integral to chemical reactions. The human body is made of up nearly 60-70% water by body weight, with a decrease of 4% causing dehydration and losses of 15% becoming life-threatening or fatal. Drilling down further, water is considered a universal solvent, it plays an important structural role in our cells as it regulates their shape based on water concentration in various environments and facilitates biochemical reactions by being directly involved in dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis reactions. And this is only at the cellular level. As water crises and droughts highlight the lack of consistent water access around the globe, we know that water is essential for life.  

Our Headwaters Research Experience students recognize the importance of water quality to aquatic systems, and we help students create projects centered around the analysis of water quality in their neighborhoods and watersheds. These types of water quality studies are simple to conduct, but can yield impactful results  and raise awareness among local community members. 

Ethan Liu was curious about water in NYC and focused on comparing water quality between the neighborhoods of Chinatown and Bayside, which have a sizable difference in average household income. Ultimately, Ethan found that there was no significant difference in pH or total dissolved solids (TDS, like inorganic salts and some organic matter) for water sampled from restaurants in these regions. Ethan, and the community members who allowed him to sample their water, were reassured by his findings.

Ethan’s presentation is the first of our student presentations featured here if you’d like to learn more:

Katie Chen wanted to research the effects of fertilizer on the water quality of Saratoga Creek. Many land managers use fertilizers to increase crop yields, but nitrogen runoff can cause significant damage to the watershed and harm water quality in the area. Through her experimental research design, Katie found that the fertilizer significantly reduced the pH and increased the TDS of Saratoga Creek water. Katie did a great job designing, conducting, and analyzing her research and the Journal of Emerging Investigators accepted her write up for publication!

Read Katie’s paper here!

This week for Headwaters’ Back to School Fundraiser, we’re highlighting water! Donating to Headwaters helps us plan and run the Research Experience and students like Ethan and Katie pursue projects that impact their communities and contribute to science. Your support also helps us provide Lunch with a Scientist talks, like Dr. Tonya Shearer’s on coral reef health, to students around the country. Thank you!