Overview of River Source’s Educational Programs

River Source offers programs that often provide three to six contacts in duration with the first day often starting in the classroom. The following contacts occur outdoors in the field outside of the classroom on a school’s campus or on the banks of local a river typically on public lands. Finally, the final experiences often involve engaging students in doing data analysis, creating and making presentations of their data and outcomes from doing ecological restoration.


Contact 1: Introduction to concepts, premises, and practices of watershed science and stewardship

The first contact with students front-loads information about the relevant concepts, vocabulary, as well as activities that offer students context and an idea of what the field experiences will entail. Using multimedia, such as graphs, pictures and sometimes videos, and often demonstrating water quality technology creates visual and hands-on engagement for students.

An example of a slide from one of River Source’s intro presentations

Contacts 2-3: Field Days

During field days students participate in activities outdoors that occur at their school or at a site by a local river; this location is identified by the teacher, River Source, and often a community partners who may use the watershed data. The educational experiences may take the form of three categories: 1) Outdoor campus assessment, 2) Watershed Watch and/or 3) Ecological restoration. Ecological restoration activities occur when problems and solutions are identified based on campus or river assessments that students identified, with River Source learning and assisting alongside. For example, at Monte del Sol School, students identified locations of soil erosion from storm water runoff and areas with low vegetation cover. The students and River Source then collaborated and came up with the idea to spread native grass and wildflower seeds and mulch in this area to revegetate this part of the land.

 Mr. Hererra demonstrating to the students how to spread native seed

Watershed Watch

When the outdoor portion of the program is at a river, students typically complete three main activities which includes water quality monitoring, measuring streamflow and collecting and identifying aquatic invertebrate insects. During water chemistry students measure different attributes of the water such as water temperature, turbidity, pH levels, and total dissolved solids, dissolved oxygen and nutrient measurements.  Measuring streamflow engages students in collecting the velocity of the water in the river along with the depth and width of the stream which gets multiplied to estimate how many cubic feet of water is passing by every second (cubic feet per second or cfs). 


 Mr. Herrera starting to teach the chemistry portion of a program by a dying river  


The third main activity involves collecting benthic macroinvertebrate organisms or aquatic invertebrates where the students put on waders and enter the river with nets to collect insects from the bottom of the river. The students then sort and identify the organisms in small trays using microscopes, identification keys, and flash cards showing pictures of the insects and giving brief descriptions of them. The insects reveal an idea of how clean the river water has been since some of them are sensitive bioindicators of water quality and if they are not found, the water may have a pollution problem. 

                                                            Students participating in the species indexing station, using nets to capture the species they will then analyze 


The field trip is a great location to observe the effects of flooding, soil erosion, and pollution and how it can affect vegetation and the types of organisms living in the stream. Marion Markham, a science teacher at El Dorado community school, noted that “this was the most engaging activity for the students because they directly interact with water and the organisms in the river. ” (Markham, personal communication, 11/21/2022).


Campus Watershed Assessment

During campus watershed assessment, River Source assists students in conducting landscape surveys and assessments; students make maps and take pictures, use drones to capture footage, and complete environmental surveys of the soils, vegetation, drainage and water harvesting opportunities. The campus assessment generally happens on the school’s land, but may also occur on nearby public land that the school is looking to utilize as an outdoor classroom.

River Source teaches students how to identify potential issues in their landscape through these processes. The campus assessment aims to identify any land or vegetation that has been degraded or destroyed and discover possible opportunities that could make the land’s form and function increase for biological and hydrologic health. For example, at the Monte del Sol River Source instructed students to use GPS-capable phones to take pictures of landscape problems that River Source told the students to look for during the opening presentation. These were turned into data points the class could see from an overhead view and analyze.

                                                         An overhead view of the scattered data points that students collected from the Monte del Sol assessment of land.


With campus assessment, River Source collaborates students to conduct ecological restoration. River Source staff can provide solutions and work with students in stations completing activities that restore ecological health or fix environmental issues such as soil erosion on campus. For example, at the Monte de Sol Charter School, students discovered that they were having trouble with soil erosion when it rained and that a nearby storm water basin was filling with dirt.  River Source worked with students to build a rock rundown to reduce soil erosion with rocks and grass seeds that will slow the force of the rainwater, sink it into the ground and limit future erosion.


                                            Pictures show Mr. Schrader working with the kids collecting rocks in order to build the erosion control dam pictured on the right.


For campus and river field trips, River Source engages students in collecting and crowdsourcing map data with an application called Survey 123, where the students are given smartphones to take pictures of assets and areas of concern to build a collective map. Some of the problems that River Source has the students look for are soil erosion, noxious weeds, drainage problems. The surveys help the students identify and learn about specific watershed problems and develop solutions in a real-world context.

River Source and teachers use the data to track a river’s condition year after year or share issues of concern or areas needing protection (go to https://immappler.com/riversource/).  River Source uses this information to perform ecological restoration on the river based on the problems that student participants and educators identified. For example, students may observe sediment in the bottom of a stream. By sharing the data on the database other students and can use information plus data from previous student field trips to observe a trend that points to the need address soil erosion on river banks to improve fish habitat in the river.

Contact 4: Turning Data Into Information and Sharing Collective Intelligence with Communities

The final activities conclude with students and River Source staff analyzing the data that was collected and summarizing student findings. Students use the water quality, biological and streamflow data they collected along with the map information they gathered. Students are asked what they would like to see happen to improve conditions at the river site or on campus to engage the students in something that personally affects them.

River Source programs allows students to do active fieldwork that teaches complex concepts. In a classroom setting, students would typically learn these through a textbook or lecture. Carlos Santistevan, a chemistry teacher at the Santa Fe Indian School, claims that this hands-on fieldwork is valuable and allows the students to connect to science through nature. Mr. Santistevan compared the hands-on activities to conventional textbooks stating, “Textbooks were not made to engage students, they’re boring and dry ” (Carlos Santistevan, personal communication, 11/18/22).  River Source moves the focus away from textbooks and to bring students into the real world of environmental science and stewardship.

As an extension to the educational programs, River Source offers paid internships to youth in target communities during the summer which exposes youth to work-learn opportunities and can expand a student’s ability for future work. This is very important as not only does it allow the students an opportunity for a paid job, but it encourages more people to get involved in environmental work.