WICKENBURG - Aaron Levels held a green viewing tray up to his eyes, studying what looked like a tadpole squirming in an inch or so of water.
The possible tadpole had most recently squirmed in the Hassayampa River, which cut a quiet path under a footbridge where a group of sixth-graders panned the shallow water like riparian prospectors searching for aquatic life and, perhaps, higher marks.
"It has a tail ... no shell ... no legs," he said, reciting from a checklist that guided the students through an exercise no classroom could duplicate.
"It looks like a leech," another classmate suggested. What they sought was proof for their theory that rivers support the widest range of riparian life, a premise that emerged from a water-education program offered at a growing number of Valley schools.
Tracy Thunem, Aaron's teacher at Ryan Elementary School in Chandler, consulted a laminated chart and eyed the specimen, listening as another student wondered if it might be a midge pupa. Thunem leaned toward the tadpole, but either way, it was better-received than the spiders from the first scoop of sediment.
"Hey, guys," said Chris Gammage, standing in the river, his feet and legs protected by oversize wading boots. "I think I got something here."
For the rest of the morning, Thunem's students and about 100 others from Ryan and cross-town neighbor Frye Elementary School conducted their own investigation at the Hassayampa River Preserve, an area maintained by the Nature Conservancy just off U.S. 60.
Wednesday's field day was part of a yearlong water-education program developed by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. The program is designed to help students learn about water, from its source in rivers and aquifers, to the taps in their homes and schools. More than 10,000 Valley students will participate this year in the classroom lessons, which are linked to state education standards, including reading, writing, math, science and social studies.
About 1,800 of those students will participate in field days like the one, traveling to the source of the water they have studied to make a connection with the natural environment, a living riparian system. The students test theories they devised during classroom study, such as the difference between the ecology of streams and lakes, how sediment affects water quality, and how streamflow shapes a river.
"The idea of the field trip itself is they see the value of water in the natural environment," said Kerry Schwartz, director of Arizona Project WET, the UA education program. "They see this place is different. And it's different because there's water, and where there's water, there's more life."
Project WET began as a way to train teachers in water education (thus the acronym: water education for teachers). Nearly 7,000 teachers have completed the training since the program began in 2000, adding to their curriculum lessons in rivers, groundwater and water conservation, along with activities like home water-use audits. The training is funded by contributions from state agencies, cities and counties, water providers such as Salt River Project and the Central Arizona Project and a handful of private sources.
The students put their knowledge to work in some instances. At St. David Elementary School in Cochise County, seventh-graders studying water use figured out that the school could save nearly 100,000 gallons a year by installing faucet aerators, a suggestion adopted by the school board.
As classroom instruction evolved, the desire to take students to the water grew. Last year, with money from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, UA tested a pilot program with five teachers. That led to a grant from the Nature Conservancy and the resources to expand across metropolitan Phoenix.
"A lot of folks don't necessarily make that connection of where the water comes from," said Pat Graham, state director for the non-profit conservancy. "Part of our program is to help raise awareness of the important role our rivers provide and importance of keeping those rivers healthy."
The group's own "Wild About Water" program fit well with Project WET, Graham said, "and the appeal of working with Project WET is they've developed an in-school curriculum that's very sound."
This year, the schools program was divided into three sections: where water comes from, how people in urban Arizona use it and how that water connects to its natural systems.
"We were looking for critical-thinking skills, to get the kids thinking creatively, being able to communicate," Schwartz said. "We got them to design their own question and then figure out a way to go out and answer the question. The trip was out there waiting the whole time."
The question Tracy Thunem's group came up with was whether macroinvertebrate life would flourish more in a stream or in a lake. Macroinvertebrates are life forms without a backbone that are visible without a microscope.
The group's working theory was that such life would do better in streams because of the added oxygen from flowing water. The Hassayampa preserve offered the flowing water of a river and a small riparian lake, or cienega, not far from the riverbed.
Students collected samples at the river first, comparing specimens with the chart and noting what they found on a data log. Then, they moved to Palm Lake. Mackenzie Bell donned the waders and walked a few feet into the water, scooping up the first sample of water and sediment.
Tristan Phuong used a net on a long pole to stir the water and gather another sample, and the group then began sifting through the sediment with plastic spoons, calling out for the viewer when they found a new specimen.
Amber Luc stood by with a clipboard as the teacher and students analyzed what they found.
"Does it have a backbone?"
"Does it have legs?"
"It does have legs."
"I think we have a mayfly larvae," Thunem said at one point. Tristan and Aaron found a water strider, known for its long legs and ability to skim the surface of water.
"We learned that there are qualifications for a riparian area to be healthy," Thunem said as the students finished their survey of the lake. "One of those is the number of macroinvertebrates. They chose this as their experiment."
Once back at school, the groups will compare notes on aquatic life, water quality and other topics investigated and then produce a presentation for a water symposium in May. Program organizers hope to expand it further next year.
Graham said the program offers other benefits for urban students who often never get a chance to see a river this close.
"It's one thing to talk about conserving water and using it the right way," he said. "To see it is quite another. We're showing them the importance of rivers not only in providing water for them, but that they're sharing it with a whole host of other creatures."