River Watch program provides opportunity for 'real science'

Students research, tabulate river data in advanced science program at CMS

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In Norm Yoast's advanced science class at Craig Middle School, his students are hypothesizing, collecting, tabulating and organizing data for the Colorado Department of Wildlife (DOW). They are not just learning about the theoretical application of science, they are looking at its practical uses and using them.

The students are the "scientists" for the Craig Middle School River Watch Program. They cover several intricate categories of research, which is added to a massive database utilized by various government departments to monitor the health of rivers and bodies of water in Colorado.

"This program gets the students involved with real science with real meaning by collecting data for the DOW," Yoast said. "The DOW uses the research to set stream standards and to track pollutant sources."

Two hundred and fifty schools nationwide participate in the River Watch Program, and have been involved in some major scientific discoveries, Yoast said. The Alamosa High School program was responsible for the discovery of arsenic pollution from a salt mine in the San Luis Valley.

"Three years ago, our research was published by the Harvard School of Education through a legacy grant," Yoast said. "The program in the Middle School is always in the top five percent statewide for the accuracy of our research."

Fifteen students each year are accepted into the program. There were 62 applicants for this year's class. Yoast is trying to make the program part of the regular science classes, but class size is an issue.

Two weeks ago, Craig Middle School (CMS) received 13 used computers from NORAD and Rocky Mountain Flats through a state grant program.

"With this size class and by getting these computers, we can now have everyone working during the entire class period," Yoast said.

The student's attitudes are a big part of the success of the program.

"The kids have such enthusiasm for this science project. It's a great hands-on experience," he said. "For the after-school field trips, the kids are always there. There's no need for leg-pulling or enforcing required attendance."

"I love the program," said Tia Brannan. "There's much more to do; it's never boring. It also helps out with your future, with opportunities for scholarships. For an eighth-grade program, it's really well done."

Yoast uses the research done by the kids to expand the existing databases.

"Over the last couple of years, we've been working on data concerning aquatic insects, making that database bigger each year," he said. "I'm looking to computerize the information; I'll be working on that this summer."

The students gather data on several issues from 12 stations throughout the county, which are sampled monthly. They sample for heavy metals such as zinc and copper, the pH of the water, dissolved oxygen, water hardness and alkalinity, total dissolved solids, insect life, and the amount of discharge for the river. In addition, Yoast said, they also survey fish populations and catches, collect data for erosion studies, soil pH and moistures throughout the valley, and this class is just beginning its examination of how the geological makeup of the area effects the river.

"Another aspect is that this program achieves the standards for CSAP testing for critical thinking and problem solving," Yoast said. "Their report this year will involve interpreting 10 years of data along with their own research. At the beginning of the year, they hypothesized how flow would affect the chemicals in the river, and now they are seeing the answers and how the hypotheses match up."

The DOW has donated $10,000 worth of equipment and chemicals to CMS for the program. Two fish tanks from the DOW are used to raise cutthroat trout during the school year. Portable labs are used to collect samples and data, and equipment for various tests have all been made available, Yoast said. Any time more chemicals are needed, the DOW fills the need without cost.

Kellan Moore, 14, is one of the participating students, who thinks the program is good for the school.

"I think it's fun, and I'm learning a lot. This work is a lot better than the regular science class."

Alicia Thomson, 13, agreed.

"This is more instructive that the regular class, but it's also a lot more work, going out to the sites and working in the classes," she said.

The results of the studies are posted on the school's Web site, www.moffatsd.org, when completed.

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