This special series of stories, which together form a whole, describe a project-based learning, or PBL, started this year at San Antonito Elementary School in the special education department.

The PBL takes students in the San Antonito STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Magnet into the field to work with scientists. Part of the project is bringing what they learned to the public in some way—and teacher Theresa Rodriguez wondered if their work could be featured in the newspaper.

The 10 students who submitted the stories below also worked with The Independent, learning how to write a news story, and going through an editing and revision project. Photos were taken by a teacher, then chosen and captioned by students.

Trying to Answer the Essential Question

By Quinlan Gwyther

Some students of the PBL: Wildlife School Part I – Bear Aware in front of their bear cave classroom, wearing their PBL T-shirts. Photo by Theresa Rodriguez. Caption by Will Mitchell and Leanne Pacheco.

“What can San Antonito STEM Magnet students create to disseminate accurate information to help our community co-exist with bears?” This is the Essential Question that the special ed students were faced with. The teachers—Mrs. Lazar, Mrs. Rodriguez, and Mrs. Peacock—named it “PBL: Wildlife School, Part I – Bear Aware.” According to Educators of America Project-Based Learning, or PBL, uses “real-world scenarios, challenges, and problems allowing students gain useful knowledge and skills that increase during their designated project periods. We researched controversies over bear populations around the Sandia Mountains, and hope to add our own scientific research and information to the discussion. We were able to do this project because of a $5,000 Horizon Grant from the APS Education Foundation that the special education teachers wrote. We created eight Focus Teams on These Teams studied one aspect about our project. This helped us gather accurate information faster. We worked closely with the staff at Sandia Mountain Natural History Center, jointly-owned by APS and the N.M. Natural History Museum on the east side of the Sandia Mountains. After this year, the younger grades will continue the PBL, studying photos and videos taken from our cameras, collecting data using scientific protocols, and sharing our findings with the larger community.

‘Doing Science With Scientists’

By Miller Millea

Students taking part in the PBL Wildlife School Program were able to purchase field equipment, including computers and motion-sensor cameras. We received the money in August, 2018 for the current school year. The grant paid for trail cameras and their accessories, T-shirts and the field experience. During our research, we were flexible about what we were going to buy because it had to meet the needs of our unique situation.

Three special ed teachers holding the grant for the PBL. Caption by Will Mitchell and LeeAnne Pacheco.

The final things we decided on were: two trail cameras (with heat and motion sensors), four SD cards, two lock boxes, two SD card readers, two rope locks, three MacBook Airs, one box of AA rechargeable batteries (containing 48 batteries), and two battery chargers. The T-shirt design was a combination of the students’ drawings put into one. Our field experience helped us learn about the black bears’ environment and what they need to survive.

Bear Mountains or Bare Mountains?

By Simon Marshall

The special ed teachers sought to expand our learning about a bear controversy in our community. The controversy is that people have different opinions on what a good bear hunting policy is, according to Sandia Mountain BearWatch. If people continuously kill and hunt them, bears could go extinct in our mountains. If we let them overpopulate, they could harm humans and start to die because there would not be enough food for them to eat. The environment needs bears, and bears need the environment. Bears help the environment by eating dead animals so that there are not a bunch of carcasses all over our beautiful forests, and keeping other animals from overpopulating. Bears need the environment to survive, so we need to protect enough of the land for them to live. This balance needs to be looked at each year because things change and the parts may need to be adjusted to keep the balance. We researched several sites for this information, including Sandia Mountain BearWatch, Albuquerque Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican, the N.M. Wildlife Federation and the City of Albuquerque.

‘Beary’ Good Presentations

By Olivia Kern

In January, Colby Gardner, a wildlife biologist who works with the wolf population in New Mexico, and Fiana Shapiro, an environmental educator from Sandia Mountain Natural History Center, came to San Antonito STEM Magnet to give presentations about trail cameras. Our 72-student group was split into two, and each group heard a different speaker. Shapiro and Gardner talked to us about where we should put the trail cameras to “catch” wildlife. They suggested we complete a test run to see if the camera was working smoothly and if the placement was good.

Presenter Fiana Shapiro from the Sandia Mountain Natural History Museum, showing where she placed a field camera. Photo by Theresa Rodriguez. Caption by LeeAnne Pacheco and Will Mitchell.

It is best to switch our SD cards once a week and download our photos and videos on our computers. Then we can make videos, photo collages, and other items to upload onto our school’s website. Gardner gave crucial information about the criteria our camera needed such as it having heat and motion triggers. Shapiro gave details about bear activity near our school. They recommended protection around the trail camera to keep it safe and to have back-up batteries. They also showed footage and photos animals caught on their trail cameras. This information was very useful in helping us wade through our research and choosing the cameras that would best meet our needs. One of the students, Hudson Bookhout, thanked Gardner and Shapiro for helping with our PBL Bear Aware project.

Black Bears’ O-Piñon on Food

By Sara Simballa

Black bears in the Sandia Mountains have a very large range of diet, according to our guide at the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center. The bears eat juniper berries and bear corn in the spring, piñon nuts in the summer and fall, and chokecherries, which are ripe in August to September, so the bears can eat that food and get fat before they hibernate. Black bears can eat roots, insects, carrion, and small ground animals to round out their diet. Gambel Oak and bear corn have a symbiotic relationship. A symbiotic relationship is when two living organisms rely on each other to survive. The roots of the bear corn burrow down and enter the Gambel Oak’s roots and begin to feed on the nutrients from the oak. So, the bear corn is technically a parasite. Bear corn does not kill or negatively affect the oak tree. When the bears awake from hibernation, they go to oak trees looking for acorns. When the bears see that there are no acorns for them to eat, they eat bear corn instead. Then, bears might go to the bathroom near other oak trees. The seeds of the bear corn travel through the bear’s digestive system undigested and the seeds are planted near the oaks. The seeds will only germinate if they are passed through a bear’s digestive system. Then the cycle will start all over again. Fourth-grade student Lynn LaJeunesse said, “Shout out for the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center, the teachers and principal, and all of my peers who gave us advice during this project.”

Camera Conundrum

By Grayson Oakleaf

Have you ever wanted to observe bears in your area? We decided to get trail cameras to perform that very task. Two presenters taught us about the cameras they use. The cameras had different triggers and costs. We wanted two cameras that had both heat and motion triggers. Due to cost, those cameras would not meet our budget. A student asked if there was a camera with heat and motion sensors for a good price. That got us going! We compared the prices for several different options over a 3-week period. We found that the Reconyx Hyperfire 2 was best for what we needed because the Reconyx Hyperfire only takes a picture or video if the sensors detect heat and motion so we didn’t get a bunch of grass blowing in the wind. We wanted motion because if the sun warms the area around the camera, it could take a bunch of pictures, too.

Students of the gifted class at San Antonito made a comparison chart to buy the best camera system for the project. Photo by Theresa Rodriguez. Caption by Will Mitchell and LeeAnne Pacheco.

After that, we started to look for the best deal we could find. We found a premium package that gave us most of what we needed. It was less expensive than buying everything separately. We wanted to buy two of the premium packages but it was a little over our budget and the batteries were not what we needed. The students on our Trail Camera Focus Team wrote a persuasive letter to Mark Stokes at (the seller of the premium package) asking to switch out the batteries for rechargeable batteries and to drop the price. Sara Simballa said, “Out of TrailCamPro’s generosity, we were able to get right on our budget’s mark.” We had a great experience with this, and it was a lot of fun.

Solving a Real-World Problem

By Ben Schwebke

Three fifth-grade students modeled purchased trail cameras and accessories chosen after price comparison. Photo by Theresa Rodriguez. Caption by LeeAnne Pacheco and Will Mitchell.

Integrating academics is part of what makes a PBL fun. Math is part of that. Mrs.  Rodriguez’ fifth graders did a price comparison for our trail camera purchases. We were solving a real-world problem, which was a great way to get learning experience. We had two plans: Plan A was to buy each item individually; and Plan B was to buy as much as possible as a package, then buy the rest individually. We met every Thursday and we worked on this for one and a half hours each week. We had to buy two trail cameras, two lock boxes, two packs of 24 AA rechargeable batteries, two poles for a surface to attach the camera to, two rope locks, four SD cards, and two battery chargers. Our teacher sent us an assignment on Google Classroom which told us what to do, the budget, and had links to the websites we used. Next, we used Google Sheets to add all of the expenses, which took the longest of all the tasks. We learned how to write formulas to add, subtract, and multiply in the cells. In the end, most kids found Plan B was the least costly. However, most of us also messed up the sheet and costs and ended up with different totals. Overall, this helped the bigger picture a lot. It may even tie into our jobs when we are adults. This will also help with our PBL and our goal to catch bears or other animals on camera before the end of the school year. Besides helping us stay within our budget and use the money wisely, this work improved our math skills.

Phenomenal Field Trip

By Hudson Bookhout

On April 3, students learned the best way to position motion- and heat-sensing cameras to capture bear activity, and other facts about bear diet and habitat on a field trip. The field trip was beneficial because we could then collect our own photos and videos of bear activity near our campus and add our finds to the general bear discussion. When we arrived at Sandia Mountain Natural History Center, we split up into three groups, briefly discussed what we already knew about bears, and looked at preserved bear scat that had bear corn seeds and piñon nut shells. Then the guides took us on different trails to do our activities.

Four students and a parent chaperone using a dichotomous key to identify a shrub. Photo by Theresa Rodriguez. Caption by Will Mitchell and LeeAnne Pacheco.

We used a tool for tree identification called a dichotomous key to see which trees grow in certain areas and to identify specific trees bears use for food. We observed one of the trail cameras that was set up. The guide explained that they set up the camera next to a spring because animals would want to go there to get a drink. We saw bear scat next to a indentation in the forest floor surrounded by tall trees. These three pieces of evidence combined made us think it was a bear’s day bed. We took notes along the way and shared them with students who went on the other trails. Students participating in the PBL hope the future of this Bear Aware project will show that this field experience was important.

Next: Smile for the Camera!

By Josiah Miller

After we learned as much as we could about bear habitat, what they eat, what they like in the bear habitat, and purchasing cameras, our next step was to place our cameras around the San Antonito Elementary School campus in Sandia Park. To know where to place them, we listened to presentations, and took a field trip to the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center. We learned about what bears need in their habitat such as piñon pines, Gambel Oak acorns, bear corn, chokecherry, and tall trees in which they climb for safety.

San Antonito students doing a habitat check to see if it could support bears. Photo by Theresa Rodriguez. Caption by Will Mitchell and LeeAnne Pacheco.

We completed a bear habitat checklist to enhance our knowledge about what makes the best bear home. Using this checklist, we searched for and gave points for positive things in the environment (tree cavities, pine and fir trees, rock ledges, tall trees, thick understory, bear corn, Gambel Oaks, and prickly pear cacti) and took away points for negative things (wide open spaces, human beings, human trails, human trash) which would keep the bears away. Also, we looked for evidence of bears, such as fur and scratches on trees, scat and tracks. These are good signs on where to put a trail camera. Now, we are ready to find the best place to put our cameras.

Program Prospers for Posterity

By Eva Nelson

What is the outcome of all these activities? All special education students learned so much about bears and their habitats near our school. Plus, we had tons of fun! Grayson Oakleaf, a fifth-grade student said, “My favorite part about the PBL was probably buying the trail cameras because of all the math involved.” Liam Peirce, a fourth-grader, said, “My favorite thing was making the camera chart and choosing a camera.” Another fourth-grade student, Riley Steeples, said, “My favorite thing about the PBL was choosing where to place the cameras.” All students agreed that this was a very fun and educational experience. This PBL will continue for several years. We’ve laid the groundwork for future students who will work on this project. “The special ed teachers are committed to continuing this project,” said teacher Theresa Rodriguez. “As a STEM Magnet, we’re required to do a PBL.” Rodriguez said this year the project will look at bears, and next year, possibly bears or other wildlife.