River areas provide fertile ground for student learning in Arizona

Students on field day become riparian scientists and use systems thinking to explore the inner workings of a healthy ecosystemStudents on field day become riparian scientists and use systems thinking to explore the inner workings of a healthy ecosystem With school out and summer in full swing, many U.S. teachers are taking advantage of their time away from the classroom to participate in professional development programs. In Arizona, dozens of teachers are participating in Aqua STEM Academy. These three-day workshops include a whole day of training in Systems Thinking, an approach that teaches students to make distinctions, see part-whole systems, identify relationships and take perspectives as they think about complex water topics.

Aqua STEM Academy, developed by Arizona Project WET, is the first step in a comprehensive educational program that helps teachers use water to drive STEM learning for students. The program culminates with the Riparian Habitat Exploration Unit, which includes classroom lessons and a field component.

Sandra Hurlbut is the community coordinator for the Aqua STEM program. She said that the focus on riparian areas is critical to the program.

“Arizona is really hurting when it comes to riparian areas,” Sandra explained in a recent interview with the Project WET Foundation. “Only about .4 percent of all the land area in Arizona is riparian, while the average in the desert Southwest is 2 percent. Riparian areas are so important because they’re the buffer zone between our groundwater and surface water, and many kids here don’t get a lot of exposure to the outdoors, for all kinds of reasons.”

Only about .4 percent of all the land area in Arizona is riparian, while the average in the desert Southwest is 2 percentOnly about .4 percent of all the land area in Arizona is riparian, while the average in the desert Southwest is 2 percent To prepare for the field day, students “become” riparian scientists and use systems thinking to explore the inner workings of a healthy ecosystem.

“They are introduced to five different environmental careers—aquatic biology, terrestrial biology, water chemistry, soil science, and botany,” Sandra said. “They see a short video from a professional in each field, and then students fill out a mini ‘job application’ for the career that interests them. Based on that, the teacher separates the students into careers, and they develop their own scientific field investigation questions.”

On the field day, about 140 students at a time immerse themselves in the riparian experience, encountering amazing water places and learning why environmental stewardship matters.

“Students are matched with a mentor scientist for the day,” Sandra added. “These volunteers work with a group of five students, facilitating the investigations in the habitat.”

Volunteers are recruited from a varied cross-section of the community—from corporate volunteers to garden clubs. In one case this year, students from a local high school’s Advanced Placement Environmental Science served as the mentor scientists for middle school students, which Sandra said benefited both groups: “It gives the older students experience and skills in teaching, mentorship and presentation, and it gives younger students a person closer to their own age, who they may be able to relate to a bit better,” she said.

Students are matched with a mentor scientist for the day, a community volunteerStudents are matched with a mentor scientist for the day, a community volunteer The whole curriculum is designed as a kind of puzzle, with the over-arching question of what makes a riparian habitat healthy, and if it’s healthy.

“Each scientist has their own criteria for that, and the students conduct experiments to get the data,” Sandra noted. “At the end of the field day, students write their information on magnetized puzzle pieces, put them together and determine if the riparian area is healthy. Then they go back to their classroom and discuss any outliers.”

Students on field day also take part in a “Habitat Hunter” activity, she added. “They pick an animal they’re interested in and learn about it. They look for signs of the animal’s shelter, feeding habits and so on. They then use that information to do a Habitat Hunter map.”

Sandra said that participating students—many of whom come from urban schools—are actively engaged on field days. “Some of them have never even seen a cricket, let alone a tadpole,” she said, recalling that students recently found a bullfrog, and she was able to show them tadpoles and frogs on the same day.

Some students may not have spent much time in nature, so the field day helps them make connectionsSome students may not have spent much time in nature, so the field day helps them make connections “When I told them, ‘These (tadpoles) will turn into those (frogs),’ they were, like, ‘What?’ They get excited about stuff. You have to help them make those connections,” she said.

More than 1,000 Arizona students have gone through the Aqua STEM program so far, which includes not only the Riparian unit but also School Water Audit and the Rainwater Harvesting System Design units. In the School Water Audit Program, students audit fixtures such as faucets in their schools for efficiency. Based on their findings, they make recommendations to save water, often by installing high-efficiency devices on water fixtures. They are also responsible for communicating their findings and message to the wider school community. In Rainwater Harvesting System Design, students experiment with and design rainwater harvesting systems and quantify the amount of potable water saved through use of this system.

“It’s a fun thing and a great program,” Sandra says of Aqua STEM. “We would love to see more teachers take advantage of it.”

The 2018 STEM Academy is complete. To learn about future programs, contact Arizona Project WET.

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