Fertile Minds

NASA Tests The Water With Summer Science Programs For Kids.

By Kevin Franklin

THANKS TO THE University of Arizona, NASA and one dedicated graduate student, some Arizona kids are getting a hands-on scientific education along the San Pedro River near Sierra Vista.

Among other programs, the UA/NASA Space Grant Graduate Fellowship provides financial backing to introduce kids to this Southern Arizona riparian area, with a youth-oriented afternoon of learning how scientists study and monitor desert river ecology. While it may seem strange that rocket-science oriented NASA is plunking down cash to teach kids about plants and waterways, graduate fellow Keirith Snyder says it actually makes lots of sense.

Review "NASA is really making a big push to bring science to elementary school, junior high and high-school age children, and to try to get them involved," she says. "When you send up a satellite it has a lot of common uses. It's not just astronauts walking around on the moon. I think they're really trying to tie in global change and global research."

Today Snyder is leading a group of St. Gregory Middle School students to her research area along the San Pedro River.

Snyder is working on her doctorate in renewable natural resources, and is studying the flow of water through the riparian system. After the field trip, she hopes students will have a better understanding of what a field scientist does, to make a career in science seem more real and attainable.

"We elevate science to this point that no one thinks they can do it," she says. "I certainly didn't. But these kids come out here and say, 'Oh, this is what scientists do. I can do that.' That's what NASA had in mind, I guess."

The 9-year-old Arizona Space Grant Consortium is based at the University of Arizona. The grant money is supporting myriad projects like Snyder's. One of the graduate fellows goes to Spanish-speaking classrooms, gives a talk on climate change, and recruits interested students to visit the UA campus to learn more. Another part of the program includes helping UA students design parts of a satellite.

"We sponsor 45 distinct programs, and have 25 member institutions," says Susan Brew, Arizona Space Grant Consortium senior coordinator. "It's a real heterogeneous program. Space is interpreted broadly. It includes not only astronomy, planetary sciences, physics and those disciplines you would think of as being space related, but also it branches into a lot of the Earth and environmental fields with NASA's earth sciences focus. NASA has a strong interest in Earth as a planetary system."

Snyder's research into the water requirements of the cottonwoods, willows, grasses and other plants fits right in with that environmental emphasis; and her hands-on approach in right in line with improving student understanding of science techniques. She introduces kids to the tools of the trade--like a nitrogen gas pressure chamber.

The gauges, nitrogen tank and pressure lines all seem very bewildering to the seventh and eighth graders on today's trip. But using simple language and a step-by-step demonstration, Snyder explains how it operates and how she uses the resulting data to determine plant health and drought stress.

By cutting a stem and placing it under pressure from the tank, Snyder can determine how tightly the plant cells are holding the water. The more pressure required to extract the water, the more stressed the plant is from dehydration.

Soon excited middle-schoolers are darting around the river banks gathering different plant parts to test.

"People always want to know how much water the city uses," Snyder says of her research. "Those are easier uses to gauge. You put a meter on it and read it out. The aim (of my work) is concern with natural areas and natural resource management; you need to know how much transpiration you've got from the grass, and the cottonwood, and the willow, and the soil and the river itself."

By learning how much water the natural system requires, Snyder then has an understanding of how much water must be maintained in the river to support the ecosystem.

For the kids, it's a good opportunity to get a first-hand look at science that has a real-world impact.

"The kids really like to get out of the classroom," she says. "This is hands-on and they can understand it. Instead of creating a little science project for the day, I want to show them what we're really doing. I'm trying to show them this is what real scientists do, and that they can do it, too."

Getting There

Teachers interested in participating in Snyder's outreach program can reach her at ksnyder@ag.arizona.edu. For more information on the space grant program, check out their homepage at http://www.seds.org/spacegrant.htm; or contact Susan Brew (sbrew@seds.org) at (520) 621-8556. TW

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