High School Students Learn About Science Disciplines at National Wildlife Refuge


Photo Courtesy Denver Zoo
Highlands biology professor Sarah Corey-Rivas, right, talks with Española and Bernalillo high school students at the STEM Showdown Sept. 20 at the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge.

Las Vegas, N.M – High school students from Northern New Mexico experienced science disciplines firsthand at a national wildlife refuge, thanks to a partnership between Highlands University and the Denver Zoo.

The STEM Showdown event took place at the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge, a 4,224-acre property on the Mora River 30 minutes north of the Highlands main campus in Las Vegas. The Denver Zoo co-manages the refuge with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Speaking to scientists in this setting allowed students to learn that scientists are ordinary people who overcame their own challenges to do what they love,” said Edward Martínez, Highlands vice president of strategic enrollment management. “Students had the opportunity to learn about the many options available in science careers, and we invited them to study science at Highlands.

“Having conversations with scientists helps students realize they could be scientists someday,” said Martínez, who is also a natural resources management professor at Highlands.

Martínez said the New Mexico MESA middle and high school program was another important partner for the STEM Showdown. MESA stands for mathematics, engineering, and science achievement.

More than 20 Highlands faculty, staff and graduate students participated in the STEM Showdown, along with other science professionals. Students from seven high schools in Las Vegas, Albuquerque Española, Santa Rosa, and Bernalillo participated at the showdown during the week of Sept. 18 – Sept. 22.

The students learned about science firsthand in 30-minute field sessions on a variety of topics like hydrology and wetlands, veterinary medicine, beaver ecology, geospatial science, and “amazing race” species.

Students also had the chance to sit down and talk with scientists, asking questions on topics likes academic preparation for careers, internships, career decisions, and the importance of mentors.

“Talking informally with scientists is valuable because students gain perspective about the scientist’s personal journey in their discipline,” Martínez.

Joe Zebrowski directs geospatial technology at Highlands, and is the university’s liaison with the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge.

“Many high school students have fear of science and math,” Zebrowski said. “At this STEM Showdown, students got to meet scientists who are enthusiastic about their discipline. We wanted students to see how much fun science is, and be less intimidated.”

Zebrowski said the event also gave students the chance to be outdoors in a beautiful natural setting, free from the distractions of electronic devices.

“This STEM Showdown was also an opportunity for more Highlands professors and staff to become aware of this incredible learning and teaching resource at the refuge,” Zebrowski said.

Shantini Ramakrishnan, who earned a master’s degree in biology from Highlands, works for the Denver Zoo as the director of restoration and research at the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge. She organized the STEM Showdown.

“Shantini did a fantastic job giving the high school students a well-rounded introduction to many science disciplines at this event,” Zebrowski said.

Highlands University science professors and students have conducted research at the Rio Mora site since 2005, when it was Wind River Ranch, a conservation, education and research property directed by wildlife biologist Brian Miller. Wind River Ranch became the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge in September 2012.