Going Big with a Project

In 26 Super-Easy* Steps

Ariel View of Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, the target of this project.  Photo courtesy USFWS.

*Not all steps are actually easy.  

I teach an integrated Environmental Studies and Statistics course to seniors at a project based school in Albuquerque Public Schools.  I just finished one of the more ambitious projects of my career. Here is a step by step guide.

Step 0
Start with a couple of guiding principles: (1) Projects are most authentic when the work of the project is the work of the World.   (2)  Acting locally is one of the best ways to reinforce environmental agency.  

Step 1
A year and a half previous, go to a workshop for teachers at the Rio Grande Nature Center, about teaching the natural history of the Rio Grande Valley.   Meet Jennifer Owen White, an employee of the US Fish And Wildlife Service (FWS), and the Refuge Manager of the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge.   Decide, after subsequent conversations with Jennifer, that a project working the the Valle could be a great thing, and that it could afford an opportunity to Go Big.
Step 2
A year previous (circa Sept 2013), with the help of Jennifer, run a project with the nex+Gen seniors in Environmental Science to take baseline data around biodiversity, observe wildlife for Nature’s Notebook, and consult on the conceptual design for the Valle de Oro.   Later in the project, get news of the 2013 Gov’t shutdown, and concomitant denial of access to the refuge.  Abandon project.
Step 3
Spring of 2014 – take on student teacher, Rachel Thomas
Step 4
Summer 2014: Meet with Jennifer Owen White (refuge manager) again over lunch, with Rachel Thomas, while Jennifer enumerates the kinds of work that will help move the development of the Valle forward: measuring biodiverisity; working with Nature’s Notebook; talking with Office of State Engineer and/or AMAFCA about water rights; working with the nearby Community Center; work with FWS hydrologists to dig groundwater wells, and test the water.
Step 5
Consider the needs of the Refuge, and the standards, and decide that the project will focus on biodiversity, local natural history, and water considerations.   Because the class is also statistics, use the data-taking opportunities to address mean and standard deviation, and measures of central tendency.   Create two (really long) driving questions to get at history, water quality, and biodiversity.

1)      Can Albuquerque and the surrounding ecosystem afford the water to create habitats appropriate for a wildlife refuge that is closer to the historic Middle Rio Grande Valley ecosystem?
2)      Is the Price Dairy, and its groundwater, a good choice for a refuge that will harbor robust biodiversity?
Later, come to regret the length of those driving questions.   Even later, come to love the length of those driving questions.    In general, love and hate the driving questions alternately.
Step 6
Come to realize that the best way to ensure student commitment is to include student choice.   Plan on having all students address driving question, but also have students focus on the various jobs that Jennifer enumerated before.    Add a component that students must interact with an outside expert to help them with their work.    
Step 7
Figure out who the outside experts must be, and carry out an email campaign of terror, asking potential experts if they will lend a hand.   Express as much gratitude as possible to Rachel for doing that legwork.   Spend a lot of time especially communicating with Erin Posthumus, a fantastic representative of NPN  and Nature’s Notebook, and get the suggestion of creating a field guide.     Once experts are confirmed, write the entry doc, and get Jennifer’s approval.  Plan on a project launch at the actual Valle de Oro.  Also review the excellent Letter that Erin wrote to our seniors.
Step 8
Somewhere in the process, determine that the rate of project design and legwork is not going as fast as anticipated.   Put off the launch of the project, by inserting a smaller project in its place.   Breathe a sigh of relief that (1) the project doesn’t have to launch right away, and (2) I had the interim project to insert.
Step 9
Launch project at Valle de Oro.    On a 500 acre bit of land, create 4 stations, and have students drive from station to station.     Station 1: have Kristin Proctor show students how to make observations for Nature’s Notebook.   Station 2: have Rachel hike with students to the river to gather water samples for later testing.  During hike, discuss bosque habitat.     Station 3: have students learn about groundwater from Darrell Kundargi, a FWS hydrologist as they take samples from a FWS groundwater well.   Station 4:  Show students how to count species with a transect and quadrat in a part of the land that has gone fallow.   Point out the invasive pigweed.    When it is too late, remember that you are allergic to pigweed, and enjoy a lovely rash.      Even later, listen to a mother, who was also a chaperone, tell you about removing the tick from her daughter who undoubtedly got the tick from tromping through the pigweed.   Come to understand that pigweed is the invention of Satan.

nex+gen students count species in order to calculate biodiversity during Project Launch.


Step 10
Based upon their experiences at the project launch, have students choose which group they want to be in:

1.       Community Center
2.       Nature’s Notebook
3.       Hydrology
4.       Water Law
5.       Field Guide
6.       Biodiversity

…and make sure there is an expert they can communicate with.   Feel guilty about not rolling out the project with the rubric, but also move forward understanding that the rubric might artificially limit what the students can learn and explore.
Step 11
Because they are seniors, and can drive, allow students to leave class some days to go to the Valle on their own for measurements, or the offices of experts to consult with them.   Keep in communication with FWS hydrologist who is amazing at getting the kids involved in the water testing, and even digging a groundwater well.
Step 12
Use the notion of counting birds to create an embedded problem-based unit that addresses mean deviation and standard deviation.  Take this initial work, and turn it into a College-Ready-Assessment.  Marvel at the quality of student work.
Step 13
Leverage Rachel’s expertise in water resources, and as per her student teaching requirements, have her  assume the class for two weeks.   Watch her bring in an expert biologist and an expert in water law to help students address the driving questions.  Work with her to develop a lab and a test.
Step 14
Have students brainstorm about the final exhibition of their learning, exhorting them to “Go Big”, and not just settle for an in-class or in-school exhibition.      Get the choices boiled down to either a “Trade Show” style exhibition at the Zoo, or a field trip to the Valle de Oro where Seniors teach either Freshmen or Juniors.   Have students write email to the education person at the zoo.  Talk to Jennifer at VdO, who loves the idea of lots of kids at the refuge.   Float the idea of a field trip to the other teachers at the school.   Get mixed response from the faculty.  Worry that the rubric still does not exist.
Step 15
Find some sweet maps to use to help students predict the relationship between water and biodiversity as they learn about linear fits and correlation.
Step 16
Get a positive response about the zoo.  Follow up with a phone call, but don’t get a returned call.  Decision made!   Field trip the Valle!   Plan for Nov 10.    Talk with Jennifer, and find that Nov 10 is her vacation.   Move back to Nov 21.   Freak out because you need to teach other stuff, students are fatigued by the current project, so start a mini project about population growth and extinction rate, and assume that you can go back to the Valle work the week of the Final Field Trip.  
Step 17
Write a grant for the cost of transporting people to the Valle. Express gratitude to the principal when he says that he can pitch in more buses so that more students can go.
Step 18
Get buy-in from both the Freshmen and Sophomore teams for the field trip, and when you realize that implies a field trip of 250 people, freak out.   Practice rhythmic breathing to calm down.   Then freak out again, because you understand the gravity of the logistical nightmare you have taken upon yourself.   Then freak out again because you realize what the seniors need to do in order to shine on the field trip.   Abandon…well, postpone…the Population and Extinction mini project in favor of getting students ready for field trip.    Hear with some amount of satisfaction the collective sigh of relief emanating from the seniors, and chuckle that they are relieved at getting to prepare for project presentations.  Freak out again because there is no rubric.
Step 19
Start planning for the field trip with a Field Trip Design Team made up of students and faculty, brainstorming a set of goals and an agenda.  Land on:  time for exposition, (perhaps two or three rounds of groups teaching out) and time for fun.   Groups present at various locations on the land, and we have the buses ferry students from station to station, so they get a sense of the size of the area, and see many parts of the land.  Make sure that the 9th and 10th grade teachers understand the curricular goals, and can prepare their students for the affair.    Send email to volunteer coordinator to get parent chaperones.
Step 20
Sit down with Rachel and write the flippin’ rubric.   Focus on assessing their answers to the driving questions.  Give rubric to students.   Also create assessment that the freshmen and sophs use for assessing the senior presentations.   Give that to the seniors too.
Step 21
Meet with representatives of each group in all classes to determine where on the Refuge they want to present during the field trip, and determine how many stations we need to have, and how many rotations necesarry.   Become befuddled by where to send the buses on which route.   Have wicked smart teenager figure it out for you.
Step 22
Spend hours upon hours on logistics:  Write letters to the students and their families, create schedules, draw maps, arrange for sack lunches, make  google docs for grouping of 9th and 10th graders, plan for those who stay behind from field trip, communicate with parent chaperones attending, confirm buses, meet with school nurse about meds for students on the trip, arrange for materials to be delivered at the Valle (binoculars, tables, tents, shovels, etc).   Have seniors make prompts for a writing activity out in the Valle.   Make a schedule for the bus rotation, but then make 2 additional alternative schedules, each offset by 15 minutes, just in case the buses show up late, or transportation takes longer than scheduled.   Take your colleagues up on offers to help with distribution of meds, lunches, etc.   
Step 23
Schedule in-class presentations for the 2 days before the field trip, and offer coaching to the students for their field trip presentations.  Assess and grade presentations at this time, because there’s no way that you as the instructor can get to all of the groups on the field trip, and surely something will go wrong on the trip that will divert your attention.    Discover that some groups need A LOT of coaching.   (“What is a nitrate, Mr. So-and-So?”   “It has nitrogen in it.”   “And…?”   “So….yeah”)   Make some seniors squirm with the barrage of questions designed to create fear inspire more healthy preparation for the field trip.  Tell some students who needed more coaching that they can improve their grade so far by having someone video their presentation on the Valle.   Remind them of the growth mindset.
Step 24
Go on the Field Trip!  Discover that the single most difficult thing about the whole affair is transportation.   Deal with the fact that a couple of bus drivers didn’t get the memo that they needed to provide shuttling from location to location on the Valle, and while students are presenting, carry on conversations between the school secretary and the bus company.  Resolve the issue, with relief, and go watch the seniors shine.   Internally, jump with joy.   Go to the next station, and watch the seniors shine.   Repeat.    Note that the groups who needed to video themselves in fact did so, and report speaking confidently.   Confirm with other teachers who observed them.
Try to coordinate the fun activities, and come to the realization that it is much better to have the seniors run the activities that  you.    Have Jennifer Owen White end with closing statements.  Enjoy the fact that several people ask after the field trip:  “How can I volunteer at the Valle de Oro?”

Jennifer Owen White starts off the day with an overview of the mission of the VdO.

Getting ready to measure depth-to-groundwater at a Fish and Wildlife groundwater well.
Students with Nature’s Notebook Group, observing for birdlife.
Birdlife! A Sandhill Crane presents itself for the Nature’s Notebook Group
Seniors guiding the measurements of biodiversity


150 students line up to play “Herons and Minnows” the VdO version of Sharks and Minnows


A Heron in the Steelers t-shirt goes after several Minnows


Seniors celebrate their performance, and being outside
Step 25
Reflect on the day, and conclude:
1.       Student choice remains great
2.       Start process of deciding final product earlier
3.       Write the rubric earlier, but not at the beginning.  I still like the notion that the students were able to explore real work without a checklist.
4.       Speaking of checklists: make checklist and plan for every phase of something like this especially on the day of the field trip.   (What do I say to the teachers in the briefing?   Who runs each activity?  Etc.).  There were a few detail I missed in communicating on the big day that would have come through if I’d had stuff written down.
5.       This cannot happen without the support of the administration and collaboration of the other staff members, and especially my teaching partner for the project, Rachel Thomas.
6.       It was totally, unequivocally, worth it.
UPDATE – 3/8/15
Jennifer Owen White has contacted the school and APS, and is in the process of writing a grant that would land nex+Gen a greenhouse for growing native plants to help repopulate the Valle de Oro! We should know whether the grant goes through by the summer.
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Biodiversity + Rainfall + Correlation


Image courtesy NOAA

Image courtesy NatureServe

What’s the connection between the South Valley in Albuquerque, and South America?   Biodiversity and water.

I teach a course that combines Environmental Science and Statistics.   We have been working with the US Fish and Wildlife to help develop land that was previously a dairy farm, then alfalfa farm, into an urban wildlife refuge, the Valle de Oro.

As part of the site plan for the refuge, the FWS plans on deploying water previously used to irrigate crops to help create intermittent wetlands, which should bring in both plants and animals not recently seen there…so we should see an increase in the biodiversity.    This won’t be too hard, since the fields have been dominated by the monoculture of alfalfa.

Students are exploring whether it is worth it to devote water to the land, and create the refuge.   To help them make the connection between biodiversity and water (which, to be sure, it pretty intuitive), I gave them this assignment:

Submit a spreadsheet that has:
1) Data for rainfall and associated biodiversity from the two maps.  You should have at least 8 pairs.  Here are some instructions (please listen with headphones) to collect your data from the two maps and place onto excel.
2) A plot of the two sets of data
3)  A cell identified as the correlation, with the correlation coefficient calculated for your data set.
4) A discussion of the relationship between rainfall and biodiversity, which includes in interpretation of the sign and value of the correlation coefficient.

You’ll see that the two maps are the same depicted at the top of this blog.

I got nice response from the students, and because each student chose a different set of locations, each graph was unique.    To wit, here are some screen shots of some student work:

Student 1: “Bob”

Student 2:  “Sally”

Notice that “Sally” had concern over her results: she thought that there should have been a positive correlation, like Bob’s.   The only way I could assuage her concern was to assure her that we would coalesce the entire class’s data, and create a super graph.   In fact, students had to do the assignment twice, but this time with the data gathered from all of their classmates, making the results so much more interesting.

“Frank’s” results, with whole-class data

And with this result came the resolution to Sally’s concern.  Despite the disparities between hers’ and her classmates’ results, when all the data was collected, the final work showed exactly what she anticipated:  more water is associated with greater biodiversity.

Now the students are better equipped to convince others that the Valle de Oro, and New Mexico, will benefit from the use of the water, and can back up their claims with solid data from other parts of the world.