The Pueblo West View

Conquering a volcano

Swallows Charter Academy students explore 800-acre National Park in New Mexico

“Umm, Justin, I think that you have forgotten one thing ... you’re the P.E. teacher and I’m the art teacher. How can we possibly take students to a volcano on an educational field study to New Mexico, since we aren’t science teachers? “

Swallows Charter Academy’s new science teacher was not starting until the following week but I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of escorting high school zoology and environmental science classes to another state to study volcanoes.

Wait, there’s a volcano in New Mexico?


Justin said we could wing it, he would have them run up the volcano and I could have them draw a picture of it.

As I considered the proposal, he reminded me of how disappointed students would be at not getting to go on this much-anticipated trip.

Blackmail! Who can say no to sad-faced students?

So off we went, P.E. and Art leading students on a science adventure. Just 156 miles from SCA’s campus is the Capulin Volcano National Monument, an 800-acre National Park housing this intact cinder cone volcano.

In 1916, this volcano was made a national monument because it’s one of the few cone volcanoes that has not breached, which causes the cone to collapse on one side, making it look like a horse shoe rather than a cone.

We approached the entrance to the park, the vast expanse of sky and prairie, broken only by the occasional mounds of volcanic rock dotted around the horizon.

Rangers showed us to the housing facilities the park had prepared for students.

The boys stayed in a yurt, complete with cots, a kitchen, and full facilities.

This wood-framed canvas building was spacious and our students loved looking out of the clear top.

We girls stayed in a house that had plenty of beds and futons to accommodate us comfortably.

That evening, Park Rangers were anxious to start filling our heads with facts about the area and taking us on a tour of this geographic wonder.

As we drove from the four-mile circumference of the base up to the road to access the trail to the rim, we were all a little nervous about the lack of daylight.

Rangers, equipped with flashlights, led us up the mile long trail to the rim, situated 8182 feet above sea level.

Of course the P.E. teacher motored up the trail, espousing the benefits of exercise and how the squats he had students do in class help in building the quadriceps muscles we were using.

Those of us who internally rolled our eyes as our thighs burned, were suddenly distracted by the full moon rising in the sky.

The long, low horizon illuminated by a lunar flashlight was enhanced by the ranger’s stories of the volcanoes on other planets and moons.

The following morning, students were enthusiastic volunteers for The Humming Bird Monitoring Project, a collaborative effort between Capulin Volcano National Monument and the Humming Bird Monitoring Network. This project serves to study the migration patterns of these birds as it relates to climate change.

Birds are collected for banding, tracking, and data collection.

Students took part in assisting the rangers by manning the trapping stations and collecting the birds and delivering them to the rangers for banding.

At the trapping station, Ranger Maggie (on internship from New York) demonstrated how to catch these small, fast birds.

Hummingbirds have intense metabolisms and need a lot of calories; they have weak legs and depend on their wings, so when they land, it’s quick.

Students were then able to capture these petite birds, put them in small mesh bags, and deliver them to the rangers for data compilation.

Students watched as the skillful team would measure, weigh, and assess the age of these birds.

One of the most fascinating aspects to this process was how they ended the little bird’s brief time in captivity.

Rangers would carefully hold the delicate bodies like a dart and using an exaggerated swooping motion, guided their little beaks in to the sugary stand of sweet calorie laden food.

This simulation of flight would encourage the miniature aviaries to drink to replenish their energy.

Soon, we found our way to an outdoor classroom where rangers had our students running from a sticky explosion of pretend lava as we simulated volcano eruptions by dropping Mentos into liter soda bottles.

We all became experts in being able to identify the ‘cinders’ (volcanic rock that’s smaller than your fist) and ‘bombs’ (volcanic rock larger than your fist) as well as the ability to find Russian Thistle (tumble weed before it’s a tumble weed).

As a service component to the field study, students and staff helped thin an unwelcomed, non-native, invasive weed.

Using weed pulling and a rope game as lessons in biodiversity, Rangers demonstrated the battle between consumers and producers.

We discussed what would happen if producers (plants) lost this fragile balance by having students play tug of war. The consumers would win, but have nothing left to eat and therefore die out as well. Students had the opportunity to collect as well as distribute seeds via small mudpacks. Of course the fastest way to deliver these seeds was throwing them! Teenagers and throwing mud: a match made in heaven.

As we split into two groups, one that wanted to see the rim of the volcano in the daylight and those who wanted to explore the fields around the base, we enjoyed the warm, cloudless New Mexico sun. The topography of the area is very similar to Pueblo West… Well, except for the volcanoes. We had discussions about how different we thought it would look and how our ideas of volcanoes were formed from movies and cartoons.

We all came out of the experience able to throw around science-y vernacular. Students, the P.E. teacher, the Art teacher, and our trusty bus driver/photographer, Mr. Jackson, all walked away from our trip feeling like we learned something. While still not an expert in cellular regeneration, I walked away with a much greater appreciation for the earth and its complexity.

As I thanked the rangers for their time, I told them that while I have the best job on the earth, they have the second best job.

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