Fill The Winter Break With This Fun – And Free – Scientific Challenge

Fill The Winter Break With This Fun – And Free – Scientific Challenge

Ever wonder about the birds that call your backyard home? Looking for an activity that’s fun, free and easy to fill some downtime over the winter break?

Headwaters Science Institute has you covered with our new Winter Break Backyard Bird Challenge! Over the last week of the year, from Dec. 27-31, we’ve created a challenge to keep students outside and engaged scientifically over winter break. This challenge will guide students through the scientific research process, all while using data gathered in their own backyard.

students use nets to find invertebrates in shallow water

To take part in our Winter Backyard Bird Challenge, you will need to have a bird feeder nearby where students can observe avian visitors. We recommend having your bird feeder set up at least five days before the start of the challenge, so that birds have time to locate the feeder and get used to its presence.

Over the course of the challenge, students will record what birds they observe at their feeder. Students can then submit their data to Headwaters, and will use the data they and their peers collect to answer the research question they developed at the beginning of the challenge. Click here to register for the challenge. 

To get a head start on our Winter Break Backyard Bird Challenge, please review our Bird Feeder video to learn more about why it’s important to study birds and instructions on how to make a DIY bird feeder. Then, review our Pre-lesson Activity for a short reading assignment that will help your student get ready for our challenge. 

This post will serve as the home for this challenge, and we will post updates and links in this space to guide students throughout the process. The schedule of events for the Winter Backyard Bird Challenge is as follows:

Day 1: Monday, December 27 

Learn how to ask scientific questions and design your research project. Click here for your guide.


Day 2: Tuesday, December 28 

*LIVE Session* 3PM EST/12PM PST 

Community Interaction & Data Collection. Watch the replay here


Day 3 Wednesday, December 29: 

“Lunch with a Scientist” with Mark Stanback: Biology Professor at Davidson University. View the talk here. Find the activity worksheet here


Day 4 Thursday, December 30: 

*LIVE Session* 3PM EST/12PM PST: Mark Stanback Q and A 


Day 5 Friday, December 31: 

*LIVE Session* 3PM EST/12PM PST: Bird feeder results and drawing conclusions. 


We are so excited for your student to be joining us on this research adventure. Stay tuned in the coming days for more information about the Headwaters Winter Break Backyard Bird Challenge. Happy bird watching!

students use nets to find invertebrates in shallow water
Science Mentor Jasmine Speaks to the Value of Hands-on Learning

Science Mentor Jasmine Speaks to the Value of Hands-on Learning

If you had told the teenage me that I could earn a living by catching, counting, and measuring fishes and invertebrates, I most certainly would not have believed you – yet I found myself trying to convince middle and high school students just that. A career in research performing observational and experimental studies in the field was unknown to me until my third year as an undergraduate student. This revelation sent me down an exhausting, but exhilarating and rewarding, path of studying aquatic ecology. In this new chapter, my office was a river decorated with cattail and willow, regularly visited by heron, beaver, and osprey. I could not be happier, and I wanted to spread this information with young students. 

students use nets to find invertebrates in shallow water

I was eager to work with Headwaters Science Institute as a mentor because I wanted to share with students the vast possibilities that exist in the field of scientific research. I hoped they would find wonder in natural environments that would instill curiosity and excitement. This anticipation was met as I helped students complete their projects in an incredibly short period of time – one week for 6th and 7th grade students from Sacramento Country Day and two weeks for 12th grade students at College Preparatory School.

students use nets to find invertebrates in shallow water

From study design to data collection and analysis, the level of collaboration and teamwork that occurred within groups at College Preparatory School was amazing. The students were impressive both virtually in the classroom and in-person in the field. As I helped a group of students collect aquatic invertebrates from a stream and sort them by taxonomic group, I drew parallels between the research they were performing as high school seniors and the research I conducted as a graduate student. This program is so valuable because it exposes students to experiences that cannot be taught through lectures and allows them an opportunity to learn by engaging with nature and their classmates.

Jasmine Williamshen

Jasmine Williamshen

Science Mentor

Sacramento Country Day 7th Graders Learn About Riparian Habitats

Sacramento Country Day 7th Graders Learn About Riparian Habitats

Headwaters Science Institute was excited to host our second program with Sacramento Country Day School in October! We combined digital classroom lessons with a fun field day of in-person data collection to help the 7th graders design projects focusing on the interactions between biotic and abiotic factors in riparian habitat. Our programs emphasize the complete scientific process, and students learned how to ask a scientific question, develop a research plan, collect their data, and interpret the results from their data to find an answer to their question. As one student commented at the end of our program, they learned that “ science is more than just testing things and getting results.”

Working with their team of fellow classmates and under the guidance of Headwaters staff, UC Davis graduate students, and local scientists, each group did an excellent job through every step of the process. They were intrigued by the relationships in and around the American River and asked questions like: How does the pH and depth of the American River affect the aquatic macroinvertebrates found in the river?, How does water temperature affect plant growth?, and How does the amount of rocks in an area affect the flow rate of water?.

This program, like all of Headwaters’ student-driven research programs, highlights the benefits of moving beyond the normal classroom experience for science learning. Following this program, 90% of the students said they like science more than they did before the program!

We continue to work with teachers and schools to provide these unique science opportunities to middle and high school students this school year and beyond! Sacramento Country Day teachers called this a “great experience to get students out in the field and working with graduate students”. We encourage teachers to reach out to discuss options on how we can bring these opportunities to your students as well – either virtually or in person!

David Dimitrie

David Dimitrie

Program Director

Spring and Summer Research Experience Recap

Spring and Summer Research Experience Recap

We want to extend a congratulations to all of our students highlighted in the newest issue of the Student Research Journal, published last week! Amanda Becker, Leo Long, Isaiah Ferebee, Colin Saltzgaber, and Brian Browne developed original research ideas, collected their own data or analyzed existing datasets, analyzed and interpreted their data to find the conclusions presented in these manuscripts.

student research journal cover and table of content

The breadth of research in this publication is a true testament to the creativity of the students in the program. Each student worked incredibly hard to complete these manuscripts, and we encourage them to be proud of what this research represents. Each student fostered their curiosity while managing the setbacks, time constraints, and challenges that come with scientific research in order to author these papers.

“The Headwaters process completely changed my outlook on what I could accomplish as a young scientist. It gave me the skills and tools that I need to propose a question, conduct my own research, and share it with the scientific community. Additionally, being paired with a very knowledgeable mentor that guided me through the process made it very smooth and stressless, and being able to ask her any questions I had about the process or the science helped me to learn a lot.”

Brian Browne

These articles also highlight the fantastic job the scientist mentors did in promoting this creativity and in assisting the students throughout the scientific process. These scientists each brought unique knowledge to the program, and, as research mentors, they shared with students their own experiences in what it takes to conduct original scientific research. Thank you to all of the scientist mentors who provided the time and energy to not only make these projects possible but to help our students grow as scientific thinkers.

“Over the last 18 month during the pandemic, I participated in a research program through Headwaters Science Institute and got the opportunity to work with scientists as my mentors on two research projects. I not only designed my own research projects but had the opportunity to present and publish my findings. My experience was incredibly unique as there are very few opportunities for high school students to have access to college professors or scientists as their mentors.”

Colin Saltzgaber

Students participating in our summer Research Experience presented their scientific findings in August over three nights online to family, friends, teachers, and mentors. These students did a fantastic job and you can view their presentations on YouTube, below.

The research experience is a fantastic opportunity for students interested in science and looking for an impressive project to add to their college resume. More information can be found here – we run this program in the fall, spring, and summer so think about getting involved and let us know if you have any questions.

Summer Research Experience Student Presentations

Summer Research Experience Student Presentations

As our summer research experience comes to an end, the students are preparing the final pieces of their research projects. Over the past couple of months, these students have designed their own projects, conducted research, and analyzed their findings. With the help of some expert science mentors, students tackled topics ranging from algal blooms to COVID-19 in wastewater and invasive species around trails to recycled water and plant growth.

Now that their research and analysis is done, the next step is for students to present their findings! One aspect of this is modeling the work of a professional scientist by creating journal articles they submit to the Headwaters Research Journal or other scientific journals for publication consideration. And the main event is this week on August 17, 18, and 19, when students will be taking to the virtual stage to present their research!

August 17, 18, and 19, 2021 – 5:30 PM (Pacific)

Join us live on YouTube and Facebook each night to watch all the presentations!


Join us for three exciting nights of learning about our student research projects, and meet the mentors that guided our students along the way!

And if you know any students who would be interested in our fall research experience, applications are now open at:

Full Schedule

Tuesday, August 17 

5:30 Aidan Peterson, Forest Charter School – Ski resort impact on tree health 

5:40 Richard Zhang, The Harker School – Analyzing multiple factors on the chlorophyll-a and oxygen concentrations of San Francisco Bay

5:50 Ryan Bell, Tamalpais High School – What factors facilitate the growth of harmful algal blooms in Marin County lagoons?

6:00 Claudia Fan, The Athenian School – Correlation between precipitation and wildfires in California

6:10 Caitlin Capitolo, The Branson School – California droughts through the lens of Coho Salmon migration

6:20 Lauren Holm, Los Altos High School – COVID-19 vaccines and SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater

6:30 Ashley Hung (Palo Alto School) and Michelle Liu (The Harker School) – Assessment of impact of construction on PM 2.5 levels in relation to income level of housing units 

Wednesday, August 18

5:30 Zach Rosen, Berkeley High School – Climate impacts on wildfires in California

5:40 Cas Salamon, Sierra Canyon School and Fusion Academy – Comparisons of extinct and extant fish morphology

5:50 Jia Qi, Montgomery High School – Sleep quality and anxiety levels

6:00 Rose Dalager, Mill Valley – How does human impact affect the water quality at Webber Lake?

6:10 Amy White, Gunn High School – What effect does human population have on condor population over time?

6:20 Nithya Sunko, San Marin High School – How does recycled water affect plant growth?

6:30 Nicole Stavrakos, Los Altos High School – Viruses

6:40 Will Franklin, Sugar Bowl Academy

Thursday, August 19

5:30 Annette Lu, Olympia High School – Latitudinal diversity gradient and fungi

5:40 Farida Abd el hak, Los Altos High School – How do walking trails impact the introduction of invasive species?

5:50 Claire Xu, Gunn High School – Effect of human activity on soil quality at Foothills Park

6:00 Medha Rajagopalan, Los Altos High School

6:10 Cayden Liu, Jakarta Intercultural School – What type of milk promotes faster seed germination?