High Tech Pen Pal Project Advances SSCAFCA’s Quality of Life Plan

The Southern Sandoval County Arroyo and Flood Control Authority (SSCAFCA) recently moved one step closer to fulfilling its vision for a community that cooperates to solve its environmental challenges. The agency now sponsors 10 classes from Rio Rancho to participate in RiverXchange, an innovative project that combines a year-long curriculum with class partnerships through social networking technology, to engage New Mexico fifth grade teachers and students in the long-term study of water resource issues. SSCAFCA has pledged to increase its sponsorship over the next two years to include up to 40 fifth grade classes from its service area which includes Rio Rancho, Corrales and the Town of Bernalillo west of the Rio Grande. In time, the agency wants every fifth grade class in their jurisdiction to be involved.

SSCAFCA chose RiverXchange as its major youth-based outreach project because it closely aligns with the agency’s mission of educating the public about watershed management, which includes flood control, stormwater pollution, water conservation and environmental protection. “When it comes to learning about the environment, I think the most effective learning takes place when people have to communicate, work together and actually get their hands dirty,” says Trevor Alsop of SSCAFCA. RiverXchange also aligns closely with teacher Ingrid Fason’s teaching goals. “I wanted my students to experience hands-on activities and work with each other in a collaborative setting.”

The project’s impact is due in large part to its curriculum which involves the coordination of guest speakers into the classroom and a field trip run by local water resources professionals. This outreach is provided by a wide range of agencies and organizations that view RiverXchange as an opportunity to gain entrance into area schools to meet their own outreach goals, and to work with highly motivated teachers. This year, guest speakers and field trip docents represent SSCAFCA, City of Rio Rancho, Sandoval County Cooperative Extension, New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Water for People, Keep Rio Rancho Beautiful and Friends of Rio Rancho Open Space. SSCAFCA staff provided guest speakers during the fall to talk about
watersheds and nonpoint source pollution using the Enviroscape model.

Sandia Vista Elementary teacher John Turrietta said RiverXchange enables his class to participate in a project that encompasses resources that individual teachers cannot easily coordinate. He added, “While science is the primary objective of this program, I feel that there are many other benefits of the numerous guest speakers, the contact with students on the other side of the world via wiki, and the hands-on activities on the field trip….It provides our students with a variety of experiences that puts it all together in a real and lasting way.” Cielo Azul Elementary teacher Heather Dacey said her students really love the guest speaker presentations. “My students have been 100% captivated and engaged
during all of the presentations.” Marian Wrage, Environmental Programs Manager for the City of Rio Rancho, is a guest speaker on the topics of drinking water and wastewater. She noted “…with the RiverXchange kids, we are able to go into more depth about water resource issues, because they have already been studying the river, and we’re able to refer to concepts they already know.”

The project kicked off in September when Rio Rancho classes were partnered with classes in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire, Idaho, British Columbia (Canada) and a U.S. military base school in Sicily, Italy. Teachers were trained on how to implement the curriculum, how to manage information on their private class wiki, and about guest speakers and field trip opportunities. All classes are following the curriculum at approximately the same time during the school year. Each teacher’s primary responsibility is to update his/her class wiki website with general RiverXchange information, and secure computer time every few weeks for students to write to their pen pals. Since students have their very own page on the class wiki, they get to share what they are learning with their pen pal and comment on their partner’s page.

One thing you must know is you have a water shed every were. Some examples are, the park, your back yard, our problem in this time is pollution. YOU MUST PICK UP AFTER YOURSELF!! When people don’t pick up their trash or their dogs you know poop it goes in are water shed. First it builds up and then it rains. After that it goes in the arroyos then it gets washed down in our river or yours and then you drink it. GROSS!! I mean come on…We should recycle and take our trash to the dump. Take care of you community. Anything people do to help makes a difference. – McKenzie, Cielo Azul Elementary

A challenge for most outreach projects is demonstrating impact, but RiverXchange offers a unique kind of proof that learning is occurring: the impact of the project is regularly revealed through individual student writing and student performance on three on-line assessments.

Did you know that over 2000 families have wells here? But everbudy else uses city water which comes from an aquifer. An aquifer is an underground spot of rocks, sand and clay that holds alot of water. Did you also know that in the winter people in Rio Rancho use 4 million gallons of water a day. In the summer time people use 20 million gallons of water each day. The reason why we use so much water in the summer time then the winter is because in the summer time most of the water goes to our plants and grass. That is why we use so much water in the summer then the winter. I cant wait till you write back. – Jaiden, Puesta del Sol Elementary

The RiverXchange curriculum is divided into three units: Our Watersheds, Water in Our Society, and River Ecosystems. Each unit features several hands-on activities to be done by the class that reinforce one or more key water concepts known as The Big Water Questions (see inset). A few hands-on activities are to be done by teachers on their own, but most activities are presented by guest speakers who visit individual classes. In fact, the project connects teachers with organizations and field trip locations they may not have known existed.

We had a guest speaker on Tuesday [Water for People]. The guest speaker told us how developing countries get their water. I got to see Aileen hold a gallon of water on her head. I am glad that I did not have to, because it looked like it hurt. Did you know that there are 6.6 billion people in the world? – Ben, Puesta del Sol Elementary

A field trip to the local river, tributary or riparian area is the component that initially draws many teachers to the project. Willow Creek Open Space is the field trip site for Rio Rancho students, where outreach educators from the City of Rio Rancho, Keep Rio Rancho Beautiful, and Friends of Rio Rancho Open Space teach them about the bosque ecosystem and groundwater monitoring wells. Most field trips will occur in April, but a few classes went on their field trip in November. Teacher Teresa Pickowitz recalled, “We had a field trip to the Bosque, and this was the first time some of my students have been to the river (besides driving over the river in a car).”

RiverXchange adds value to the learning experience for everyone involved because it coordinates hands-on activities into an exciting, coherent whole — without unduly burdening teachers. By aligning the project with state educational standards for science, social studies and language arts, RiverXchange shows teachers how easy and fun it is to use water as a theme and also satisfy multiple teaching requirements at the same time. All activities address the language arts standards for writing, which is a key skill teachers are asked to integrate into all content areas.

The pen pal component of the project creates an “audience” which motivates students because they know their partners will be reading what they write, and they are responsible for reading and commenting on their partners’ pages. “My students love being able to communicate with other fifth graders,” said Heidi Werling of Puesta del Sol Elementary. “It was gratifying to witness their excitement and sense of accomplishment when they clicked ‘save’ on their first wiki entry. Because we are a Title 1 school, our students do not always have the advantage of living in technology-rich home environments. RiverXchange has given all of my students exposure to technology that can enrich lives and support current and future learning.”

At a meeting with SSCAFCA and RiverXchange organizers to discuss the project, Rio Rancho Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Sue Cleveland strongly supported the project’s writing component, noting that the school district is working hard to improve student performance in all areas, but especially with their writing skills. Teacher Jody Schneider of Puesta del Sol Elementary agreed, “Writing is typically an area where most 5th graders struggle. By having an opportunity to, again, use skills in authentic situations through the use of wikis to share information with pen pals, it makes the learning process more meaningful.”

Werling added that she has also benefited from the project in terms of her own professional growth. “This has also been my first exposure to wikis and I am learning with my students. There have been times when I have been confused and frustrated, but I have gained my own sense of accomplishment as I have slowly become familiar with the process and format.”

As the year progresses, students build upon concepts they have learned to form a broad understanding of the water resource issues in their area. Students get to examine many aspects of the river in their own back yard, and take pride in sharing their knowledge of their local river ecosystem. The project enables students located in vastly different geographical locations the unique opportunity to see and hear each other, ask questions, and share personal experiences. Participants gain a broader understanding of the importance of a river to human life by learning from their peers about another watershed and comparing it with their own.

Ingrid Fason believes the project will have a lasting impact. “My students are retaining the information they are learning about because they have the opportunity to re-learn or re-teach every time they post on their wikis.” Teresa Pickowitz added, “The hands-on approach and goals of making the learning relevant to the student’s life helps them to understand the whole picture when discussing our environment. The students have become more eco-friendly. They understand pollution in the smallest amount can multiply greatly if everyone littered. I firmly believe we are educating the future caretakers of our community.” Cindy Shafer of Sandia Vista Elementary concurred, “So far the students understand that what they do at home has a direct impact on our water supply each and every day.”

In addition to SSCAFCA’s funding, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is sponsoring three classes in the area, enabling 13 Rio Rancho classes to participate. The project also serves classes in Albuquerque and Santa Fe County through a variety of funding sources. With a total of 45 New Mexico classes and 45 partner classes involved, RiverXchange is reaching about 2000 students this year. All components of the project – including identifying and securing partner classes, field trip coordination and bus transportation, guest speaker coordination and teacher technical training — are provided free of charge to teachers. This year, one or more classes are participating from Cielo Azul Elementary, Ernest Stapleton Elementary, Maggie Cordova Elementary, Puesta del Sol Elementary and Sandia Vista
Elementary.

For SSCAFCA, RiverXchange offers a unique opportunity to help the public learn not only how to work together, but to understand why citizens, agencies and organizations need to work together to create an environmentally sustainable community. For teachers, RiverXchange helps their students learn in depth about a subject, reach for deeper meaning and decide what they can personally do. For students, RiverXchange is simply fun.

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