Two undergraduate students at The University of New Mexico are hoping to pass their excitement for water and scientific discovery on to the next generation.

Taylor Busch (a senior) and Derek Capitan (a junior) are students in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at the UNM School of Engineering. When the pandemic closed down school classrooms in 2020, the two saw an opportunity to partner with Explora! in bringing hands-on learning to kids affected by virtual classrooms.

Both students work with the UNM Center for Water and the Environment (CWE); and part of the Center’s mission to increase the participation of underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professions. With that in mind, Busch and Capitan innovated Water Mania! – a three-day class giving middle and high schoolers the chance to experience hands-on water treatment and resource research.

Taylor TA
Busch working as a teaching assistant in one of the UNM labs

“They learn about why water is so important; they learn about disinfectant and bacteria in water by actually growing their own bacteria from water. They learn about temperature control, water source, water monitoring and the chemical constituents of water quality. So, they actually do water quality testing at their desk,” Busch explained.

The class was offered virtually, but Explora! ensured students were sent materials ahead of time, enabling them to build basic water quality sensors and measurement tools at home. In all, 80 supply kits were supplied to students at 5 different schools. As Explora! expands its campus to open the new teen workforce development center, X Studio, Salvagno says these are exactly the kinds of experiences and outcomes they’re looking to facilitate.

“One goal of the program was to give students an experience in water resource management, which typically isn't available in middle or high school,” explained Anthony Salvagno, associate director of X Studio at Explora! “Having the scientists over at the Center for Water and Environment lead the program also shows that anybody can do this work. The role of mentorship in these types of experiences really helps drive the learning, makes it more fun, and puts these careers on students' radar.”

Busch and Capitan worked with CWE staff Katelin Fisher, Carson Odell Lee and Sydney Donohue. The group decided early on that they didn’t want students to be just sitting in front of a computer.

“We wanted to do minimal lecture, more hands-on. So, with every lesson, students are looking at their desk, working with supplies – and we’ve had a really good response,” Busch said. “Working with Explora! has been amazing, they have so many resources and are so experienced with engaging students, finding supplies, setting up a good structure, and also how to be realistic with the resources and time allotted to us.”

Water Mania Derek 1
Capitan gives a thumbs up while working in a UNM lab

“This pandemic made it tough to reach out and make connections with students,” Capitan added. “But now that we have the first year of this class done, it’s time to reflect and decide how to move forward from here and figure out how we can make this course better.”

Busch and Capitan explained many of the things included in the supply boxes were everyday household items. The purpose was to make science less mysterious and more accessible and attainable as a profession. In particular, they wanted to empower children in underserved communities who might not have the same opportunities as others.

“When I was in middle school, I was never shown these things and I was not able to do activities like these,” Capitan said. “It’s so crucial to reach these young middle schoolers because that’s when they can grow their interest in engineering and hands-on work.”

Originally from the Laguna Pueblo, Capitan chose to pursue engineering because of the environmental impacts he witnessed in his hometown.

“In the Laguna Pueblo we’ve been doing research on the impact of uranium mining on the crops, the fields and the water around Paguate, New Mexico to see if there is any toxic material waste.” Capitan said.

Busch, who is Navajo, had a similar experience in seeing the direct impacts contaminated water can have on communities. After graduating from Central New Mexico Community College with degrees in engineering and mathematics, she decided to continue her trajectory at UNM.

“I transferred to UNM for civil engineering because it was such a perfect fit for what I wanted to do,” she explained. “I did a research paper in community college about the uranium mining legacy on Navajo lands and decided then that I wanted to do more work on infrastructure and impacts in the community.”

While at UNM, she’s worked extensively with Associate Professor Jose Cerrato, who specifically focuses on remediation of mining legacy on tribal lands. She plans to pursue her masters at UNM starting in Fall 2021 in order to continue building cultural and community connection in her research.

“I love working with the Center for Water and the Environment and the Civil Engineering Department,” she said. “CWE has been incredibly supportive of me and the student groups I’m a part of, the Center’s leadership really encourage students to drive home those skills that we learn outside of the classroom.”

Both students say it is their goal to have the class continue long after they complete their studies, and they’re already looking at ways to make that dream a reality by expanding to in-person sessions as soon as it is safe. They're also posting some of the lessons on YouTube. Parents, students or teachers interested in hosting a Water Mania! session can reach out directly to the Center for Water and the Environment for information: Sydney Donohue, CWE Outreach Coordinator.

The Center for Water and the Environment is a research center housed under the School of Engineering and supported by the Centers for Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) program at the National Science Foundation.