RiverXchange is growing by leaps and bounds! Developed in 2007 using U.S. Bureau of Reclamation funds, the project has grown from two classes to 45 classes. This year, the Bureau is directly sponsoring 15 classes located in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. In addition, Santa Fe County is using Bureau funds to sponsor 10 classes as part of the outreach component of its water conservation plan.

RiverXchange is 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. It is being implemented this year in 10 classes in Santa Fe County, 22 classes in Albuquerque and 13 classes in Rio Rancho. With 45 New Mexico classes and 45 partner classes, RiverXchange is reaching about 2000 students over the course of the entire school year.

All aspects of the project are provided free of charge to New Mexico teachers thanks to generous funding and in-kind contributions from at least a dozen organizations. The project’s impact is due in large part to its curriculum which involves the coordination of  guest speakers to visit each classroom and a field trip run by local water resources professionals. All this outreach is provided by a wide range of agencies and organizations that view RiverXchange as an opportunity gain entrance into area schools to meet their own outreach goals, and work with highly motivated teachers. At the same time, the project connects teachers with more guest speakers than they would likely organize on their own, from organizations and field trip locations they may not have known existed. Bureau staff provided guest speakers during the fall to talk about watersheds and nonpoint source pollution using the Enviroscape model. They will return to these classrooms during the spring to talk about the importance of riparian vegetation using the Rolling River trailer.

A unique component of RiverXchange is that it partners each class in New Mexico with a  class outside the state. This year, partner classes come from 11 U.S. states as well as Alberta, Canada, and two U.S. military bases in Italy. Most partner teachers are exceptionally motivated, come to the project with significant knowledge of water resources topics, and are willing to organize their own guest speakers and field trips. They are provided only with technical support and a set of water posters that relate to each unit.

The curriculum is divided into three units: Understanding a Watershed, Water in Our Society, and River Ecosystems. All classes follow the curriculum at approximately the same time during the school year. In each unit, some activities are to be done by teachers on their own, while others are presented by local guest speakers. Each teacher’s job is then to update his/her private class wiki website, and secure computer time every few weeks for students to write to their “high tech pen pals.” Students have their very own page on the class wiki where they are to share what they are learning with their pen pal. 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.

A field trip to the local river, tributary or riparian area is the component that initially draws many teachers to the project. About half of Albuquerque classes will visit Sanchez Farm, a Bernalillo County Open Space property, to learn about agriculture, acequias, and stormwater control by the constructed wetland on-site. Others will visit the Tingley Beach Wetland or La Orilla Bosque, managed by City of Albuquerque Open Space. Rio Rancho students visit Willow Creek Open Space to learn about the RiverXchange 2010-2011,
bosque ecosystem and groundwater monitoring wells. Santa Fe classes will visit San Isidro Park to participate in a service learning project provided by the Santa Fe Watershed Association, while New Mexico State University’s Small Farm Task Force is developing a field trip for Pojoaque classes at the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde.

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. 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 examine many aspects of the river in their own back yard, and take pride in sharing their knowledge of their local river ecosystem.  RiverXchange gives 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. 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. A goal for organizers is that this understanding will inspire participants to
take action to protect local water resources.