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Nature Park Visit Gives Sierra Middle School 7th Graders Chance to Plot Desert Data

Feb 27, 2019

Just beyond the entrance to the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park lies a partitioned tract of land housing a variety of grasses, shrubs, and flowering plants called forbs.

While home to plant life now, Asombro Institute for Science Education Specialist Ryan Pemberton said the site looked very different in June 2000. That’s when 7,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled onto the park’s northern boundary.

“This all started because there is a diesel pipeline running through our park and when the road was being bladed it got accidentally nicked," Pemberton said. "And to clean up that area the owners of the pipeline cleared off this area, not knowing it was our park, to create a parking lot for the vehicles to help clean up that spill."

Pemberton said the bare lot served as the perfect case study to answer two key questions: Is it possible to restore native plants in areas degraded by human activity and if so, what’s the cheapest and easiest way?

The project began in 2001. Since 2006, the Asombro Institute has worked exclusively with seventh grade science magnet students from Sierra Middle School who collect data at the site twice a year.

There are 32 plots for students to survey. Each has been treated with one of four mixtures of native grasses, cow manure and chicken wire to keep out rabbits and other herbivores.

13-year-old science lover Lucas Vallejos and his classmates used meter sticks to measure any changes in shrub growth within their plots.

“We measured the different vegetation inside each plot and so like there’s different shrubs and then we have to measure the height, the length and the width of each shrub and then we have to count the percentage of the land mass that the forbs or the grasses or the shrubs that they cover in the different plots," Vallejos said.

Lucas Vallejos, left, helps his classmate use a meter stick to measure the volume of a creosote bush during a field trip to the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park.
Credit Michael Hernandez

Another outdoors enthusiast, 13-year-old Kaitlin New jotted down the percentage of living grasses and forbs covering her plot. New said there’s much less growth in the unfenced plot than the fenced parcel she first surveyed in September.

So, my plot today was an open plot so it was free to animals and the environment," New said. "And so, our plot didn’t have very much growth in it other than some forbs, which are some little grasslike but thin leaves and more spread open. And since it was open there wasn’t very much growth so there wasn’t a lot of creosote or grass.”

Pemberton said that’s because the response of native grasses depends heavily on rainfall for the year.

“So, the years that we don’t get a lot of rainfall, we tend to not have a lot of grass growth in these plots, and so this year what they saw in September was not a lot of grass and then when they’ve come back now in February, we did get a good bit of winter rain so they’re seeing a lot more forbs instead of these grasses," Pemberton said.

Because the ecological expedition is often a middle schooler’s first time using the scientific method outside, Pemberton said Asombro staff educates students during classroom visits to prepare them for fieldwork.

“They’re being a part of the scientific process. So, this is a long-term study that’s been going on since 2001 when we built the plots so they are looking at data that’s been collected since before they were born at this point," Pemberton said. "And they are a part of this process and they are learning that even long-term studies are important as well as short-term experiments that they might do in school."

Pemberton said students can also use the data they gather in an annual science project competition called the Desert Data Jam. The goal is to come up with creative ways to make sense of scientific data to non-scientific audiences.

Even beyond collecting data, Sierra Middle seventh grade science teacher Natalie Reno said the field trips give her students hands-on experience in fields they might pursue someday.

“It’s great to give them real life data and real-life experience doing a project that’s important. Getting them out of the classroom and seeing the difference even in their attitudes with what they can do and not just what they know out of a book. I try to give them all sorts of opportunities to see how they could end up doing something like this in their life," Reno said.

For New, learning new things about the environment is always fun, especially when she can take part in community science with her classmates.

“When I think of community science I think of working together as a school and a team and when we do it with partners in a group. It’s a lot more fun to work and it’s a lot more easier to work together," New said.

Like the native vegetation, the significance of teamwork and desire for learning about local flora is something educators aim to keep on cultivating.