Sixth grade students from Vista Middle School arrived by bus to the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park just southwest of Las Cruces.
It seems like an ordinary field trip, but on this day these middle schoolers are more than students. They’re scientists, too.
They’re here as part of the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program, run in partnership by the University of New Mexico and Albuquerque’s Bosque School. “Bosque” is Spanish for “forest.” Since 1997, the program has used volunteers known as “citizen scientists” to track ecological conditions along the Rio Grande watershed.
Las Cruces-area students have been gathering data on precipitation, plant debris and groundwater levels at the state park monthly since 2011.
The information is sent back to researchers in Albuquerque for analysis and goes into an online database for anyone to use. Vista Middle School Science Teacher Ruby Estrada said the goal is to teach students how to properly conduct research while experiencing nature.
“Sixth graders are creative and they’re very social. So one thing that I love to integrate is hands-on and outdoor education and that’s what this community science allows us to do," Estrada said. "Citizen science is primarily outdoors, of course. And so being able to have funding to bring students out to the Bosque monthly, a different class every month, gets these kids to be able to understand that they’re not collecting data for no apparent reason but that they’re contributing to an actual database that people tap into over time.”
Estrada said those include city and county stakeholders and the Army Corps of Engineers among others. Citing political reasons, Estrada uses the term “community science” rather than “citizen science” to be more inclusive of students and their families who may not be U.S. citizens.
While in the Bosque, she instructed her students to leave no trace of their visit.
The class dropped a water level reader down an irrigation ditch and several wells to measure groundwater levels. The sensor didn’t work this trip, but there was plenty more to record. For example, the amount of leaf litter that falls into labeled rubber tubs scattered throughout the park.
“Anytime you’ve got plants that are dying off, they’re going to leave some litter and that becomes fuel load if there’s ever a fire. You know so knowing the fuel load and at these different research sites gives us an idea of what kind of fuel load is along the Rio Grande’s riparian area," Estrada said.
11-year-old Joscelyn Olayo took notes on a clipboard to record her classmates’ findings. Olayo said she loves science but hadn’t heard about community science until she took Estrada’s class. She said it was fun discovering what was inside the containers.
“There was like roly-polys, like different types of bugs, insects in there. And there was also like different types of leaves and like [Estrada] was explaining to us like the leaves like were falling and they like they’d tell us like how much leaves there is per year. It was actually pretty cool because all that data is like going to be sent to Albuquerque," Olayo said.
A nature and animal lover, 11-year-old Diego Mota said he’s learned there’s more to observing the environment than hiking in the woods. Mota operated a digital weather meter to test for indicators like temperature, humidity, and wind speed.
“I’ve learned that it’s important to know some of this stuff and I learned tools that I didn’t know about before and how to use them and I learned that hiking and like exploring isn’t just about seeing just nature," Mota said. "It’s about using tools that tell you what’s going on in your environment, basically."
Mota said kids can also further scientific research by noticing what adults might miss, like finding a dead crawdad in the brush.
While they use modern instruments, Estrada said it’s important that students learn to do science using basic skills and everyday materials. That involves reading maps or fishing arthropods out of pitfall traps made from plywood, screws and plastic cups.
“Being able to use everyday materials to do scientific research with is also important because people sometimes think that it’s only technology and we do have that more sophisticated technology that they can play with and do actual science with," Estrada said. "It’s also important to let them know that you can do research you know using Solo cups, plastic Solo cups to catch arthropods and gather data from."
By simplifying science through nature, Estrada said she hopes students leave the Bosque learning not only the scientific method, but that science is something attainable.
That’s key as efforts have increased in recent years to recruit more students, specifically girls into science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields. Girls like Olayo, who said she thinks the experience will inspire more girls to pursue scientific careers.
“Boys can do as much as we can do. Girls can do as much as boys can do," Olayo said. "I like it and I, this might be what I want to do. But at the same time, I think sometimes like boys like are like the ones that like do all the outside stuff and like they get to like explore more than girls because usually girls really don't like that stuff. But I think more girls are going to be interested in this because of this today.”
Regardless of gender or age, scientific progress thrives on each person’s ability to be lifelong learners.