Citizen Scientists Unlock the Secrets of Rocky Mountain National Park


A group of teenagers are out on a chilly mountain morning at McGraw Ranch mucking around in waders, occasionally dragging the nets they carry through the mud. Wide smiles alternate with focused looks on the faces of the young researchers as they collect samples of dragonfly larvae.

This volunteer crew comes from the local Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, which draws high schoolers from all over the country. Eagle Rock Science instructor Jon Anderson is joined by Holly Nickel, education specialist with the Continental Divide Research and Learning Center, directing a half dozen teenagers as they drag nets along the bottom of murky ponds to gather larvae. These specimens will be tested for mercury in the environment. Larvae are good indicators of mer- cury content because their bodies accumulate the harmful heavy metal, which then can be passed on to other organisms up the food chain.

“Students have a natural curiosity about science and about nature,” Anderson said. “They also care about wild places and the things that live there, and they respond very well to being involved with authentic projects.”

The authenticity of working the survey, of knowing they’re making a difference, inspires the teen scientists.

“I like to know there is something being done to protect our environment,” said Eagle Rock student Theara Bolanus, who added that being personally involved is the best way to ensure something is being done. Classmate Cassandra Zambrana said she was amazed by how much drag- onflies contribute to our water systems – and how vulnerable they are. The expe- rience has encouraged her interest in science. “I would like to go into marine biology and be an aquatic veterinarian,” Zambrana said.

After collecting larvae at different stages of development, the students mea- sure them, identify the insects down to the scientific family and secure them in little plastic bottles – they are obviously well-versed in collection protocols for research. There’s a palpable sense of pride as the teens go about their work, away from electronic screens and into the out- doors for a real-life, hands-on experience.