Hiking and science in the Sierra Nevada: Headwaters executive director shares her family’s summer adventures

Hiking and science in the Sierra Nevada: Headwaters executive director shares her family’s summer adventures

There’s no better time than summer to get out and explore the natural world around you. Whether it’s hiking in the mountains or swimming in lakes, rivers or the ocean, even summertime fun can bring out the curiosity of scientific inquiry. 

The wonder nature can inspire is one of the foundations Headwaters Science Institute was founded on. 

Founder Meg Seifert took that to heart during a busy summer heading up Headwaters’ programming and summer science camps but also doing a bit of exploring herself with her family around the rugged beauty of the mountains surrounding the Truckee-Tahoe area. 

Meg loves to explore new places with her family. It’s not only great for getting the kids outside but also noticing their surroundings and connecting with nature, she said. 

“We learn grit and perseverance, as well” she said. 

Meg took two backpacking trips with her family this summer. The first a 35-mile, 3 ½-day trip to the Trinity Alps that included 10,000 feet of climbing and an equal descent. 

“It was hot and hard hiking, but the kids felt really accomplished,” she said. 

The second hike was two days and two nights to the Royal Gorge of the American River, a 7-mile out and back hike that included about 3,000 feet of climbing and descent. 

“We swam in pristine spots on the river; we saw snakes and other animals,” she said. 

Here’s more from Meg about her summer adventures and how she applies scientific inquiry:

How do you and your family view such stunning nature through a scientific lens?

“We encourage the kids to be curious. We try to notice things from flowers to plants to the landscape. We talk about and think about how the areas we are in were shaped or formed. We think about why there are different features of the landscape. We also talk about changes in plants and leaves and all of that.”

Do you try to incorporate science on these types of trips or is it more appreciating nature and all that it offers?

“It depends. Sometimes the kids are really into asking questions and looking for answers; other times, it is more an appreciation of what is around us. We let the environment and the kid’s interests guide the trips and what we do. We always have paper and a pencil to take notes or draw things. Mari loves to document with photos. She is always taking photos of plants and flowers. Sometimes it is appreciation, and sometimes it is more scientific.”

Has your science background allowed you to appreciate nature more?

“Yes, and I think it helps my kids as well. Instead of just saying something is pretty or special, we usually delve into the why. It allows us to think about how things are connected and how humans have changed or are changing an area. Really it just allows us a deeper look and hopefully, it is helping the kids to be more curious.”

Help us expand access to our hands-on science education with our ‘Back-to-School’ fundraiser

Help us expand access to our hands-on science education with our ‘Back-to-School’ fundraiser

Headwaters Science Institute is passionate about seeing students grow their interest in science, become informed citizens, and contribute to their community. We help students build the skills to be successful in many careers, teach confidence through science programs, and support the learning cycle by partnering with professional mentors and teachers to bring our programs to students across the country.

Even during the pandemic, we’ve been flexible and able to provide programs online and in person. We’ve worked with 76 Research Experience students, empowered 53 schools to engage students in programs, and reached over 600 individuals through our Lunch with a Scientist YouTube Series. With our “Back to School” Fundraiser, you can help inspire change and support more students seeking access to hands-on science programs as we aim to grow our impact this year.

Ethan Liu, one of our Summer 2022 Financial Aid Recipient, loved his experience with Headwaters’ Research Experience:

Headwaters Research Experience is a truly unique program that contrasts any science course I’ve taken in school. I was taught many crucial research skills such as scientific literacy, reference tracking, hands-on data collection, graph creation, statistical analysis, and manuscript writing. Most high schoolers aren’t taught these skills in a typical classroom setting, but gaining exposure to them through this program prepared me for future research projects in my academic career.

Ethan Liu

Summer 2022 Financial Aid Recipient

Money raised through our Back to School fundraiser helps fund scholarships like this and expands access to science in and out of schools.

When students access one of our programs — whether it be participating in a school field day, watching an episode of Lunch With A Scientist or enrolling in the semester-long Research Experience — they come away with a different perspective on science and their potential entry into the profession.

The benefits of Headwaters Science Institute’s hands-on science education are undeniable. 

Now, we are asking you, as a valued member of our community, to rally your friends, family, and networks to support our efforts and expand access to these invaluable programs. Starting a fundraiser is easy to do, and it’s fun. We’ll give you all the tools you’ll need to make a difference. Prizes will be awarded to our top fundraisers. We will also be hosting a live, in-person “Celebration of Science” event at the conclusion of the fundraiser that will include student presentations and a talk from a well-known scientist (date and location to be announced).

With your help, we can ensure increased exposure to hands-on science education in more schools and students from all walks of life. We’ve set an ambitious goal of raising $10,000 and we need your support to help us make a difference for more students! 

‘Students were highly engaged and enriched’: Headwaters’ first ever Florida science camp a success

‘Students were highly engaged and enriched’: Headwaters’ first ever Florida science camp a success

Headwaters Science Institute took to the beautiful and diverse Florida coastline for the first time in a recently completed school science camp with South Lake Elementary School.

Students were introduced to the natural wonders of the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge on the Indian River Lagoon. 

The three-day program took students through the process of science and into the field to investigate soil pH, biodiversity, and water quality along the shores of the 156-mile estuary located along the east coast of Florida. 

“South Lake students were highly engaged and enriched…,” South Lake principal Jennifer Brockwell told Headwaters. “I was amazed that in such a short amount of time, all they had accomplished and their quality of work, which they proudly presented. These students will be able to leverage their science skills in the upcoming school year and come prepared with scientific knowledge, data analysis abilities, and scientific research skills. I highly recommend this experience!”

Run by Programs Manager Jennifer Cotton, the camp was a perfect example of how Headwaters hands-on programs translate well in any part of the country, whether it be the mountain lakes and streams of the Tahoe-Truckee area or the coast of Florida. South Lake students culminated the program with presentations of their projects, leaving them with an encapsulation of what real science in the field is all about. 

“What an incredible opportunity this was!” one parent told Headwaters. “We are very grateful for you, your volunteers, and South Lake for offering this incredible summer camp. I was very impressed with what all the groups accomplished.”

For more information on Headwaters school programs or to inquire about bringing a camp to your school, click below or contact Jenn at jenn@headwatersscienceinstitute.org

Check out more photos from Headwaters’ first ever Florida school program. 

Questioning the very definition of science? You’re not alone, and we’re here to help

Questioning the very definition of science? You’re not alone, and we’re here to help

The national discourse these days might have you questioning the very definition of the word “science.”

That being said, it is important to understand the process of science and how it is fluid through time, ever-changing with the discovery of new information that potentially alters our consensus of what is known. 

At Headwaters Science Institute, we’re aiming to bring greater understanding to the conversation around what science is and how it affects the course of our lives. 

So, what is science?

To create a foundational understanding, science is the process of observation and experimentation to uncover insights about the natural world. When you Google “science” there are two definitions, 1. science is a systematic process of observation and experimentation, and 2. A body of knowledge pertaining to a subject. It is important to acknowledge that science is not either/or one of these definitions.

Generally, however, people typically associate the term science with this second definition.

Biology, for example, is defined as the body of knowledge about living organisms. But biology is really the process of generating these insights about living organisms and their vital processes. This is then communicated as a body of knowledge. It’s the combination of both definitions.

Science is not a collection of “facts”

Much of society has been taught that there is “science” and the “scientific method,” but in reality, they are intertwined. I fell victim to this when attending public school growing up. Our teachers taught science in a way that disconnected the process in which the body of knowledge is generated from reading the conclusions of the process, i.e. the textbook.

To me, it gave the perception that science is just a collection of facts that I can read in a textbook and then move on. But in reality, science is ever-changing, full of constant debate over what has been discovered in the past and exploring the fringes of what we currently understand about the natural world.

If you are in high school reading a biology textbook, the information you are reading is not the extent of what we know today and may not reflect the most up-to-date scientific consensus. Scientists are constantly developing new methodologies, challenging previous findings, and questioning authority to progress the field as a whole.

This can at times mean declaring studies to be invalid or insignificant. This isn’t always because the experimentation was done poorly or results being irreproducible, but because as time progresses, new methods can supply a more informed conclusion to determine a study invalid. 

Science is a life-long journey of learning

A perfect example of this, is the Biological Species Concept.

Simply put, it determines a species to be a group of organisms that are able to interbreed and produce viable offspring. This concept is still taught in schools across the country, but it is not supported anymore by contemporary biologists. In fact, this is still a widely debated topic as defining what a species is impacts how we conduct the field of taxonomy and study evolution.

Science is a life-long journey of learning, observation, and experimentation to close the gap of what is known and unknown about the world around us. It helps us make informed decisions, which are driven by data rather than our behavior or biases. Hopefully, as you continue to follow Headwaters Science Institute, you will obtain a new understanding, perspective, and appreciation of science.

Daniel Dudek

Daniel Dudek


‘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.