Biology at the River

In 1859, Nevada's Comstock Lode silver strike sparked the first major wave of immigration into the area. During the subsequent gold and silver rush, the Carson River played an important role in transporting gold, silver, and people to and from the mining sites and the small settlements that lay along the river.

That historically significant Carson River is only about four miles from Carson High School, where I teach science. Although it's an important river in Carson City's history, a lot of students don't understand that – indeed, some don't even realize we have a river nearby. I wanted to develop a program that would teach students about the river.

Actually the river has a bad reputation because of supposed mercury contamination. Ore mined from the Comstock Lode was transported to mill sites, where it was crushed and mixed with mercury to amalgamate the metals. During the mining era, an estimated 7,500 tons of mercury were discharged into the Carson River drainage, primarily in the form of mercury-contaminated tailings. People who live in this area still believe it is not safe to swim in the river or drink from it. While the mercury poison in the river still needs to be cleaned up, I wanted to use science to show that the water quality at the river is generally good.

The program I developed is called "Biology at the River." The goal of the program is to enrich environmental curriculum so that the students see a real-life reason to respect and protect their environment. Since Nevada is mostly a desert, the river systems are extremely important and need to be respected and carefully managed. My project enables students to learn in a natural environment in their community. Students are bused to the Carson River five times throughout the year within their block biology period.

Additionally, the program was designed to help create excitement in students to pursue the study of science and to share what they have learned with others using technology and project-based curriculum. Part of the project requires students to create an informative multimedia presentation about the river and show it to our community. Another part requires students to improve a natural area in their community by protecting, sustaining, designing and building an educational trail – the Ambrose River /Trail Site. This project leaves behind a legacy that will be enjoyed by many generations of youth and adults.

Hands-On Inquiries

I wanted to ensure Biology at the River would allow students to be active participants in their education – quite different than sitting in their classroom reading or watching a movie about riparian habitat (wetlands). In addition to visiting the river, I wanted to give my students hands-on, technology-based tools that would allow them to conduct their own inquiries.

Once I fleshed out the idea for Biology at the River, I wrote a grant and received funding to buy equipment and computers. I began by using probeware from Vernier, but eventually I switched to Pasco's Pasport probeware because I found it easier to use. The students now use handheld Xplorer dataloggers from Pasco to collect data in the field. By connecting the Xplorer to a variety of sensors, students are able to collect their own water data, including temperature, pH, turbidity (a concern because of erosion), dissolved oxygen and conductivity.

Once students collect the data at the river, they bring it back to the classroom and download it. DataStudio software is then used to graph and analyze the data. The equipment is important to the kids – they get a lot out of it, and it makes them feel like real scientists out in the field. I love DataStudio because it is so easy to use.

The students also use video cameras, digital cameras, sound recorders and scanners to create their multimedia presentations. The presentations document our river site, including characteristics, changes in the environment and what the students did there. The students work together in task groups (writers, artists, photographers and specimen collectors) to plan, organize and present their multimedia projects. They can even pull data from DataStudio into their presentations and share their graphs.

We give the multimedia presentations during a special open house at the Carson High School High Tech Center. We invite students, teachers, parents, school board members, administrators, elected officials, representatives from the Nevada Department of Wildlife and other community members.

The multimedia presentations invariably show that, as predicted, the Carson River is safe. Through the presentations, the kids and the community members realize that the mercury is not in the water, it's down deep in the soil.

Watching over 40 students speak on a professional stage to 100 community members about what they learned has been the highlight of my career. The students love the community awareness part – they know they are doing something good for the area and they get a lot of recognition. They are in the newspaper every year.

Creating a Model

Two summers ago I was awarded an EPA grant to help fund and improve the Biology at the River project. Fortunately, most of the costs for this project are one-time costs. Therefore, once the project is set up, it can be continued indefinitely and used as a model for other schools. The project guidelines and lessons will be put together in a notebook to be reproduced for other educators so that they can implement the project at a river site in their community.

As I continue the project, there will be at least 90 tenth-grade high school students and 33 second/third grade students involved each year (the high school students will mentor students at Seeliger Elementary School). This includes an average of 12 special education students and 18 English Language Learners.

Many other teachers and scouting groups will also benefit from the project by using the Ambrose River/Trail Site (which we developed in partnership with Nevada State Parks, Nevada Natural Resource Education Council, Carson City Advisory Committee, Carson Water Subconservory District and the Division of Water) for field trips and other activities. This is a public site and individuals in the community will also enjoy the area and learn from the interpretive trail.

This year, I plan to have my students create field guides as well.

Now that I am in my fourth year of this project, I understand what an awesome teaching strategy this is. Last year's students are showing interest in the activities of my new students, and my new students are actively exploring, questing, experimenting and concluding. The Carson River has become a part of many students' lives. And students' have increased their grasp of science content and skills, as well as their interest in school and the environment. It's been a great way to educate students about the river and reassure them and the community that, despite its reputation, the Carson River is safe to swim in and enjoy.


Meeting the Standards Nevada's new Science Academic and Performance Standards were used as objectives for all the lessons in Biology at the River.

Three examples of field activity lessons in Biology at the River are: What Water Tests Tell You, Micro Odyssey and the Study of a Single Plant.

The following are the Nevada State Science Standards that these lessons address:

  • Demonstrate curiosity, honesty and skepticism in doing science.
  • Investigate and describe how biological adaptations include changes that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.
  • Investigate and describe how materials and energy are cycled and recycled through the ecosystem via paths known as food webs.
  • Identify and evaluate critically the use of statistics, data, and graphs.

Presently, Nevada is also implementing a state science proficiency exam. This year's sophomores will have to pass it to graduate from high school. Therefore, the need for students to understand science and use science skills has a greater value than ever for every student.

Email: Julie Koop