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Watershed Education at Local Schools

This spring, Pita McDonald's fourth graders at Cuba Elementary continued to learn about the Rio Puerco watershed through weekly explorations of the school grounds. After studying the water cycle, erosion, piñon jays, and bird migration the previous semester, the students shifted their attention to discovering geology, soils, and different trees with Rio Puerco Watershed Initiative Coordinator Kavita Krishna.

It may be hard to believe that anyone could get excited about rocks and mud, but these bright students were eager to get their hands dirty. They quickly understood that the Earth's crust is made up many different kinds of rock, and that each type of rock has unique qualities. In the classroom, they compared two basketball-sized samples of pumice and obsidian (or "natural glass"), both of which form in volcanic eruptions. They had seen obsidian before and knew that it could be used to make razor-sharp arrowheads. While it was difficult to lift the obsidian, the students were delighted that they could easily lift the pumice over their heads. Weeks later, they still remembered that the pumice was so light because of the abundance of air holes.

Out on the Nature Trail and armed with workbooks, students sharpened their observation skills by taking a closer look at - and really touching - some other familiar rocks. They examined a large piece of petrified wood and learned that it had been formed when a tree was buried very quickly and turned into a fossil. Students also noticed how much sand surrounded an outcrop of sandstone, one of the most common rock types in the Rio Puerco watershed. After feeling how easy it was to crumble some of the sandstone, they recognized that the sand was being worn off of the rock bit by bit. Later, the class learned that rocks, like water, go through a cycle, but over a much longer period of time. Sandstone forms when a layer of sand is compacted and cemented over time. As wind and water beat away at the sandstone, it slowly breaks down into small pieces of sand again, and the cycle starts over.

These sediments, or broken down pieces of rock and mineral, can also become part of soil. With trowels and water in hand, Mrs. McDonald's class explored soil in front of the elementary school. Soil, they learned, is made up of minerals, water, air, and organic matter (both living and dead). They dug around in the dirt and observed it with their eyes, hands, noses (and sometimes mouths), and poured water over it to see what happened. Some areas became sticky when wet, which meant they had a lot of clay in them. The students also discovered that most soil in the watershed does not have much organic matter in it, which makes it harder for many plants to grow. The class made lists of things they found in the soil that were living, non-living, and once-living. Then they created their own soil snack by "weathering" graham crackers down to "sand," adding chocolate pudding mix to be the silt and clay, crumbling Oreo cookies for organic matter, and adding gummy worms for the creepy crawlers.

Returning to the Nature Trail, the fourth graders learned about three different types of trees by filling in the blanks in stories told by the tree's point of view. To find the answers, they studied the trees' needles, bark, berries and cones. They revisited the piñon pine, New Mexico's State Tree, and recognized the nice scent of the juniper tree. They also got up close to the ponderosa pine's orange bark and found that it smells like vanilla, not oranges.

Mrs. Montoya's fourth grade class joined Mrs. McDonald's class for their final outing in May - a service-learning field trip to the Rio Puerco restoration project on Hwy 550 north of La Ventana. Here they met the project coordinator, Michael Coleman from the New Mexico Environment Department, and learned that years ago the river had been straightened to one side of the highway, which had caused erosion to happen much more quickly. Now that highway bridges had been built over the old stream channel, the straightened part had been blocked off and the river moved back into its natural, gentler channel. The classes worked hard at digging holes at the edge of the river bed and transplanted hundreds of willow poles to help protect the bare banks from fast water once the river started flowing. With big smiles on their faces, they also discovered that some of the best places to plant the willows - where the ground was moist - were also the best places to get caked in mud. In the afternoon, the students carried milk jugs of water down the river to water some older transplants. With a hard day's work under their belts and the hot afternoon sun beating down, the fourth graders continued downstream to rest in the shade of a huge, old cottonwood tree on the bank of the Rio Puerco.

A few words from these fourth graders, soon to be fifth graders, illustrate how much they learned while exploring the outdoors:

Kym: "I loved going and replanting willows.... I like the walks in the back of our school. We see a lot of other stuff like rock, soil, and plants.... We also learned about erosion and planting."

Danielle: "While I was working with Kavita I learned that erosion can be dangerous because it could overflow and you're in it and you might drown.... I liked the nature walks because we looked at rocks. We also looked at soil and we smelled it. We tasted it."

Elias D: "With Kavita I learned that rocks have a cycle like all other things. Kavita and Mrs. Mc took us on a field trip to the Rio Puerco to plant willows to slow down the erosion. We learned about making mud pie. We went in the back of the school and wrote and drew about rocks."

Tate': "We planted some plants at the Rio Puerco. It was fun.... We did that because we can stop the erosion in the Rio Puerco river."

Jacob: "We got to go on a field trip to the Rio Puerco. The willows had to get chopped down. The willows had to get replanted in a different place. Then after the planting, we...took a long hike up the road to where we were giving the water.... I liked working at the Rio Puerco."

Alycia: "When I was working with Kavita, I learned about the types of rocks there are in the world. We also learned a lot about soil, erosion, and plants.... The plants we looked at were trees. One of the trees we saw was piñon pine."

Jason: "We learned about what the people that were working on the Rio Puerco were doing. We wrote about the rocks and what particles are in the rocks. We looked at the different trees and wrote about the three different trees like piñon tree, pine needles, and a berry tree."

Joaquin: "We went on a field trip to the Rio Puerco and planted willows. It was funny. We got muddy and my shoes were muddy. The river was high. It was so wet. We looked at big, big trees. She told us what kind of trees they were."

Ashleigh: "Ms. Kavita showed us what type of rocks there [are] and told us where they were from.... So this year I learned a lot from Ms. Kavita. I know all of the trees from her.... And I know all about the plants and rocks and water cycle."

Myra: "Ms. Kavita showed us about how the plants grow and ... [where] they come from."

Shannon: "I learned about soil, erosion, plants, and [m]any types of rocks with Kavita.... We went on a hike through the erosion.... erosion is when the water takes the soil away to another place. I know that plants can grow in soft brown soil.... It was fun working with Miss Kavita."

Amber: "I learned that erosion can take soil away from a river, a lake, or a ditch. An erosion is water that takes soil away from its place. When a storm comes, the rain falls into the dry river, the water is a lot, strong, and heavy and fast, so it could take the dirt or soil away."