Riparian Restoration

Santa Fe Girls’ School builds girls’ confidence in STEM through preservation of the lower Santa Fe River

Every week throughout the school year, eighth-graders from the Santa Fe Girls’ School traverse to the lower end of the Santa Fe River to conduct water quality tests, supervised by teachers Olivia Carril and Melissa Miller.

The girls become experienced scientists, measuring temperature, pH, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, phosphate and total dissolved solids in different parts of the river. It’s all part of the eighth-grade chemistry curriculum, a class named “Protecting the River Environment, Stopping Erosion, and Restoring the Vital Ecology”—or PRESERVE.

The eighth-graders also conduct their own experiments as part of the class. This year, students chose topics and began research in areas including: how island size affects plant diversity; how soil profiles change across the Santa Fe watershed; how worms and moisture act as covariates on decomposition; and the effects of ultraviolet light on E. coli. The girls will design the experiments fully when they return from winter break in January, and will present them at a May showcase.

Student Evette Anna Knight intends to study decomposition for her experiment, and tells SFR she wants to learn how fast certain matter decomposes in different parts of the Santa Fe River. While wading through the river, she tells her friends fun facts she’s learned about decomposition, such as that it takes 500 years for a diaper to decompose.

“It’s really nice to have a day of the week where we can just play and experiment with nature,” Knight says. “It feels like an opportunity to me.”

Back in the classroom, students analyze their data and compare it to the previous week’s. Carril and Miller guide the class through the results, integrating the girls’ analyses into a chemistry lesson.

To Rosie Williams, co-director, this model of class engages middle-school girls in STEM fields—a core tenet of the private school’s mission.

“Part of what comes out of an all-girls learning environment is more confidence, because you get more practice being wrong,” Williams tells SFR. “The culture’s really different when it’s an all-girls environment, and allows for that ability to make mistakes.”

Miller is a former Girls’ School student inspired to pursue a career in science. She earned a bachelor’s degree in watershed science, and then continued her education to receive a master’s in soil science at Penn State University before returning to the school as a teacher.

“I was an incredibly shy young kid, and I always felt fairly solid academically, but I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” Miller says. “This school was really the place where I found my self-confidence and discovered what I loved.”

As a sixth-grade Santa Fe Girls’ School student, Miller first transitioned from cleaning up invasive species in the area to restoring the land to its previous state.

“We were planting a lot of new willows to help riparian species…we inserted water monitoring wells and we did some plant surveys to figure out what was here before the whole environment started changing,” Miller says.

After completing grad school at Penn State, she says, her first thought of what she wanted to do next came back to where her love of environmental science first bloomed: the PRESERVE.

“It became this really important drive for me to come back, and complete that full circle,” Miller says.

During the last PRESERVE class of the semester on Dec. 13, the girls return from the near-freezing water and write their findings on a dry-erase board. Then, they dive into a hands-on lesson about the chemistry of combustion while gathered around a campfire with herbal tea and roasted marshmallows.

At every class, the teachers prompt the girls with questions about the data and encourage their dedication to accurate results. At an earlier class in October, Carril tells one girl measuring dissolved oxygen levels, “I just want to commend you—that you did such a good job of saying, ‘Should I re-do it?’, because it seemed off.”

The students strive to keep accurate records of the river’s water quality, as the school has one of the longest-running water quality datasets of this river in Northern New Mexico (since 2004). Over the years, organizations like River Source, the Santa Fe River Traditional Communities Collaborative and the Santa Fe Watershed Association have used this data.

Association Executive Director Mori Hensley says the advocates reference the school’s data “to be more aware of water quality issues in the river and watershed downstream of the city wastewater treatment plant.”

While the city’s has been unable in recent months to treat its wastewater to state and federal standards, Williams says the variables affecting water quality between the facility and the PRESERVE’s property prevent the schools from attributing changes in water quality directly to the plant.

While Hensley says the city and county, along with the state environment department, are working to share regular water quality data with the community, it often falls to smaller organizations like the Girls’ School to collect data to address ongoing water quality concerns for the time being.

“We greatly appreciate their work, and are thrilled that students are able to contribute to meaningful data collection at an early age,” Hensley says.

The Center for Service Learning formerly owned the 9 acres of land, it partnered with the school 23 years ago for the restoration project.

“When we got to this piece of land, it was literally a dump, a trash receptacle, and completely overrun by invasive species: Russian olives, tamarisk and Siberian elm,” Williams says.

When the Center for Service Learning closed in 2011, the organization deeded the property to the school. Now, the school’s faculty and students monitor the restored wetland, and the school hosts service days to conserve the land’s current state.

“We’re intentionally letting it be wild, with very little human disturbance,” Williams says, “just enough to let us do what we need to do.”

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