Santa Fe County Launches High Tech Pen Pal Project

“When it comes to learning about the environment, I think programs that stay positive and engage students long-term create higher impact in the community,” says Laurie Trevizo, Water Resources Specialist for Santa Fe County. “Topics like water scarcity, water pollution and endangered species can be scary for young people, so staying positive and teaching kids what they can do is really important.”

Trevizo’s newest county outreach is RiverXchange, an innovative project that combines a year-long curriculum with class partnerships through social networking technology. The project was created as a means to engage New Mexico fifth grade classes in the long-term study of local water resource issues. Trevizo really likes RiverXchange because it provides high impact at a very reasonable cost.

RiverXchange also serves classes in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho through a variety of funding sources. With a total of 45 New Mexico classes and 45 partner classes involved, the project is reaching about 2000 students this year. Trevizo secured her funding from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation which will enable 10 classes in the county to participate each year for the next two years. 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. Participating area schools in 2010-2011 include Pojoaque Intermediate, Turquoise Trail
Charter School, Acequia Madre Elementary and Rio Grande School.

The project kicked off in September when local classes were partnered with classes in Idaho, Washington and Kentucky. Teachers were trained 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 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.

Hi Caden. What happens to the rain water when it lands on school property? When rain lands here, and it lands on the dirt it will suck it into the ground. If it lands on the black top then it would go to a different way then where it lands so it might go into the dirt or the grass. The black top keeps pollution like gas, oil and smoke from cars. – Bryan, Acequia Madre Elementary

A watershed is anything rain fall falls on. A watershed could really be anything. Like it could be a human or any living/ non living thing. A watershed is important. We might not be alive without any watersheds. It is a big part of our lives. For instance if we didn’t have watersheds there would be nothing on earth, because a watershed is every thing on earth. Our Santa Fe watershed usually leads to the Tesuque River, The Santa Fe River or the Rio Chama. But after a while all the water from the three rivers leads to the Rio Grande River. – Anya, Rio Grande School

The curriculum is divided into three units: Understanding a Watershed, 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). Here’s an excerpt from one student’s essay about why water is so important to life.

Imagine our world as an empty desert with no pets and no humans. It would be a mess. First of all water is important to life because without it humans would be extinct and there wouldn’t be anybody to help keep our environment clean because we would all be dead…. Also, water is important to life because without it there would be no pets and there wouldn’t be anyone to hug except for your parents. One reason there would be no pets because they need to drink as much water as we do. Another example there would be no pets is because without water there wouldn’t be small animals and pets need small animals to eat. Finally, there would be no pets because there wouldn’t be any trees and pets need the oxygen trees produce and humans need oxygen too…This Essay made me realize that water is really important to life because without it we wouldn’t be here alive. – Iris, Turquoise Trail Charter School

A few hands-on activities are to be done by teachers on their own, but most key concepts are presented by local guest speakers who visit individual classes. In fact, the project connects teachers with more guest speakers than they would normally organize on their own, from organizations and field trip locations they may not have known existed. Carol Brickler from Turquoise Trail Charter explained why she signed up immediately for this project: I chose to participate in RiverXchange because there is not enough time in our instructional day to teach science effectively. We never “get to” or get through all of the units in our excellent science textbook, or have time for experiments and hands on activities, so a lot of the science curriculum is let go as the year passes. I look to RiverXchange as a specific, planned, set aside time for in depth science learning and activities. Also because you offer experts in areas in which I am not an expert. These speakers demonstrate to students what scientists do. Finally, you make Science local in our real world.

This year, guest speakers and field trip docents represent agencies including Santa Fe County, New Mexico Environment Department, Santa Fe County Cooperative Extension, New Mexico State Land Office, New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, Santa Fe Watershed Association and NMSU Small Farm Task Force. Laurie Trevizo presented the drinking water and waste water activities to all classes.

Mike Matush of the New Mexico Environment Department says he agreed to become a guest speaker because RiverXchange closely aligns with his agency’s outreach goals. As the very first guest speaker students met, he taught them what a watershed is, the impacts that people have on their drainage area, how these affect water quality, and what students can do to improve water quality. When asked if he would recommend other agencies get involved he added, “Absolutely, any agency that deals with natural resources, city, county, state planning and construction activities have various expertise that can increase the benefits that RiverXchange has provided already.”

A field trip to the local river, tributary or riparian area is the component that initially draws many teachers to the project. Turquoise Trail Charter School and Acequia Madre Elementary visited San Isidro Park this fall where they participated in a service learning project organized by the Santa Fe Watershed Association. Rio Grande School will do the same in spring. New Mexico State University’s Small Farm Task Force is developing a field trip in April for Pojoaque classes at the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde.

RiverXchange adds value to the learning experience for everyone involved because it coordinates multiple components into a coherent whole. 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. When asked what she and her students are getting out of the project so far, Brickler added: So much information about our local water sources. An opportunity to participate in Service Learning in the San Isidro Park planting. It is a professional development opportunity for teachers to gain science knowledge. And last, it is an opportunity to integrate learning with technology, which all teachers are supposed to be doing.

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 for students because 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. As the year progresses, students build upon concepts they have learned to form a broad understanding of the water resource issues in their area.

Through RiverXchange, 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 about water resource issues in their communities. Students 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. The goal is for this understanding to grow
and eventually translate into action: the protection of local water resources.

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