Guest Speakers, Field Trips and Critical Thinking Skills

Classroom Guest Speakers
Field Trip/Service Learning Project
Critical Thinking Skills

Classroom Guest Speakers

Guest speakers are fabulous resource people who can visit your classroom to help you carry out a specific topic of the RiverXchange curriculum, so that students are able to understand and answer Big Water Questions like How can surface water become polluted? or Where does your community’s drinking water come from? Professionals from local water resources agencies can give students a wealth of information and perspective that teachers might not have – they are the experts because they are involved with these issues every day!

For New Mexico teachers, we will coordinate four guest speakers into the classroom plus one field trip (including bus transportation) to the local river, tributary or riparian area.  Additional classroom guest speakers are often available, but they must be coordinated by the teacher, if desired.

We will provide partner teachers with general agency contact information for guest speaker/field trip ideas in their area, but partner teachers must coordinate their own classroom guest speakers and field trip.

At this time, our current funding (which is New Mexico-based) allows us to provide teachers outside New Mexico with initial and ongoing training, securing a class partner, curriculum materials, and a classroom water quality testing kit for use on the field trip — all free of charge.  We hope to provide a wider range of direct coordination services for partner teachers in the future.

Field Trip/Service Learning Project

In addition to classroom guest speakers and a high tech pen pal, another important component of RiverXchange is a class field trip to the local river, tributary or important watershed feature.  A service learning project is encouraged, if possible.  The purpose is to introduce students to the living natural resource they have been studying – many students have never actually seen the river up close! 

Thanks to the World Water Monitoring Challenge program, all RiverXchange students and teachers are provided with the opportunity to use a water quality test kit on their field trip (at no charge!).

Our curriculum also includes pre- and post-field trip activities.  Depending on location and time of year, a field trip docent or the teacher could cover topics such as macroinvertebrates, endangered species, pollution, food webs, hydrology, agriculture, irrigation and/or the impact of straightening the river.  In New Mexico, classes have taken field trips to:

  • A working farm that grows food for Albuquerque Public Schools, and the adjacent area that functions as an urban stormwater catchment area
  • A working farm with ponds (to see macroinvertebrates) and a city-owned shrub nursery, where students re-potted shrubs to be planted in future years as riparian understory
  • The cottonwood forest area (bosque) adjacent to the Rio Grande, where students took a nature walk, recorded groundwater levels, and made and threw seed balls as part of a riparian revegetation project
  • An agricultural research station, where students became agricultural scientists for the day
  • An urban river restoration project, where students learned about the project and then planted native trees and shrubs
  • An urban open space property, where students took a long nature hike through the bosque to see the Rio Grande

If bus transportation is an issue for partner classes, teachers should consider organizing an on-site field trip or service learning project that is within walking distance — either on the school property or nearby public or private property.  Erosion and/or flooding on school grounds are common problems which happen to relate beautifully to our RiverXchange curriculum (e.g., infiltration, erosion, nonpoint source pollution).  There are agencies such as stormwater/flood control, Master Gardeners or the state environment department that may want to partner with your school to help rectify the problem while creating a permanent habitat for learning for your students.

It is extremely important for students to go outside to discover the connection between where they live and the river, and to learn that everything is connected in a watershed.  Students get to see and learn for themselves about other water users in our sociey (e.g., plants, animals, farmers), how all living things depend on each other, or what makes their water polluted.  Rivers do not become polluted or depleted overnight, and the culprit is rarely a single “evil corporation”!  Rather, such challenges are created — and can be solved — by all of us.  Through RiverXchange, students learn that the simple action of picking up their dog’s waste has a direct impact on reducing fecal coliforms — one of the biggest source of bacterial pollution in many U.S. rivers.

Critical Thinking Skills

Since our goal is to help all students understand and take pride in where they live so that they will take action to protect their environment, the first step is to give students the opportunity to learn about natural resources. After that, it is important that students learn to think critically about why citizens, agencies and organizations need to work together to create an environmentally sustainable community. Guest speakers not only bring real-world information into the classroom, they give students the “big picture” of why things work the way they do, and what role citizens play in shaping our community’s future. We continually observe that students ask very insightful questions when guest speakers are available to provide detailed answers. Teachers help reinforce what was learned by checking for deeper understanding.  Critical thinking skills are then reinforced when students explain these concepts to their pen pals, integrating their new knowledge with their personal experience.

The project outcome is for students to understand and formulate logical answers to The Big Water Questions, and our hope is that teachers will view RiverXchange as a great opportunity to help their students become active discoverers.  Developmentally, this age group is on the cusp of abstract thinking.  Why not help their mental wheels get turning by asking tough questions like How can I protect our water? In general, fifth graders are excellent at regurgitating many facts, but they tend not to immediately relate the facts to larger concepts.  Here is a specific example from our experience, which is based on our contact with hundreds of upper elementary students each year, from different schools and cities around the state:

New Mexico RiverXchange classes are currently located in the cities of Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe — all of which exist along the “middle” Rio Grande.  The river is a significant geologic presence in the state, and elementary students are required to learn certain facts about the river and the state.  At the beginning of the school year, most New Mexico fifth graders we have talked to are able to correctly state that the Rio Grande starts in Colorado and ends at the Gulf of Mexico; however, many do not know which direction the river flows, which side of the river they live on, or where their town is in relation to another town along the river  — even when looking at a map.  Few have seen the river up close, and most do not know that Rio Grande means Big River in Spanish, even though many students understand and/or speak Spanish.  The truth is, unless students are asked questions that require them to think more deeply, they tend not to put the informational “puzzle pieces” together.

Through RiverXchange, students are challenged to think more deeply about academic facts to gain a broader understanding of what is going on near them.  In other words, we want RiverXchange participants to recognize the major puzzle pieces, where they fit, and what the resulting picture tells us.

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