By Lara M. Schmit
Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research

Thirty high school students from San Diego’s High Tech High School traveled to Flagstaff for first-hand field experience at an NAU research site. The students planted 850 cottonwood saplings during their two-day stay at a new experimental garden and restoration site along the Little Colorado River on Babbitt Ranches land.

In addition to planting the trees, the students learned about genetics, plant physiology, fungal ecology and native species from research scientists. Collaborators included the U.S. Geological Survey, local nonprofits, which oversees the restoration site. NAU doctoral student Lisa Markovchick, a recipient of the Presidential Scholarship, designed and organized the project.

“Working with the students and seeing the video they created (see below) reminded me of the amazing power of science to change the way we understand the world around us,” Markovchick said. “The students not only had the opportunity to participate in real-world research but also they got to experience the joys of being outdoors in northern Arizona and learning about this place and its people. The students said the trip was the best experience they’ve ever had.”


The project involved more than just the Department of Biological Sciences and the Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research. According to Whitham, it was a combination of interdepartmental efforts. When resources were needed, Paul Capps with Campus Services and Activities loaned a tractor to the project. “Such interdepartmental efforts help make NAU an institution to be very proud of and deserve recognition,” Whitham said.

High Tech High School is a public charter school required to match its enrollment to the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of San Diego County, one of the most diverse counties in the United States. The project was designed to not only expose the students to cutting-edge research and the possibility of a STEM career, but also teach them about northern Arizona’s local history, people and ways of life.

The site the students visited is part of a larger effort to understand how genetic variation can help plants, and all the living things that depend on them, adapt to changing climate conditions. The research team is led by NAU Regents’ Professor Tom Whitham, who received a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust to restore a portion of the Little Colorado River that had been degraded by the invasion of nonnative tamarisk trees.

“Our goal is not to restore for past or even current conditions, but to pre-store to forecasted future conditions,” said Whitham, executive director of the Merriam-Powell. “Historically, there has been a very long lag time between basic research in a greenhouse and implementation in the field, but given the pace of change, we can no longer afford to do it that way.”

Upon their return, the students put together a video, talking about their experience in the field, the beauty of Flagstaff and why this project was so important.