Environmental Science Interpretive Center

ZCES Environmental Science Center

Environmental Science Center mural to illustrate several environmental science concepts at work around the Lake. In process as of August 2016.

ZCES is developing an indoor/outdoor classroom that can be used by K-6 grades to illustrate the several scientific disciplines relevant to Lake Tahoe environmental science.

ZCES teachers can drop in as part of their class time to use the Environmental Science Interpretive Center (the Center). In the coming year, teachers throughout the Tahoe Basin, Carson Valley and surrounding communities could also come in and use the space.

Zephyr Cove Elementary School adopted Place-Based Education in the 2014/2015 school year to better align the students’ science education with the remarkable environment the school is in. We want to:

  • Match classroom lessons with hands-on experimentation and exploration.
  • Part of the project would be to create and implement curriculum that supports the NGSS and NvACS and aligns with Common Core everyone can learn more about Lake Tahoe.

Key areas for exploration:

  • Water chemistry
  • Geology
  • Animal life
  • Plant life
  • Resource management

botanical cedar with branches and pine conesGoals:

  • Deepen ZCES’s Place-Based Educational effort with a hands-on learning resource on campus.
  • Expand ZCES’s appeal to other area schools as a resource and destination for learning more about the Lake Tahoe environment.
  • Be a classroom that teachers from any interested elementary school could drop into with their class and have materials and curriculum ready about local water, geology, plant life, animal life, animal habitats, and resource management. Lessons structured as “Lake Lesson in a Box.”
  • Provide an educational connecting point for area educators, students, environmental organizations and state agencies to share information about the health of the lake as a meeting site or as a venue to host a lecture series from experts.

Sample Projects and Exhibits:


  • trout-in-classroom-346x270With support from US Forest Service, set up 2 50-gallon fish tanks with coolers so students can raise Lahontan Trout from eggs in December to fingerlings and take a fieldtrip to release the fingerlings in the Spring. 2nd and 3rd Grades have committed to raising fish in 2016/17.
  • Build three columns of carved wooden blocks that rotate so little kids can match the head with the abdomen with the right thorax for insects, mammals, birds and fish.
  • Create a series of animal tracks in low cement paving stones so kids can walk along with deer, bear, coyotes, bird tracks and see how big they are in relation to the animals, and improve their track recognition skills.
  • Create mobiles illustrating the food web of Tahoe’s top predators. Create worksheets as part of a mobile kit so kids can cut out the food for a given predator and assemble these in the proper hierarchy.
  • Preserved local animal exhibits that children can touch and see their size, adaptions to the environment: an eagle, deer, Kokonee salmon, coyote, Black bear, for example.


  • growing cupsEstablish a Native Plant Walk in the front of the school, easily accessed from the Center. The students and community would be able to appreciate it. This project is pending now on a grant submitted August 2016. We should be able to proceed by October 2016.
  • Have live plants in the Center that the students studying plants as part of their Place-Based Curriculum have responsibility for watering and keeping healthy.
  • Set up a bisection of a pine, aspen and fir trees to show the differences in their development.
  • Bring in a large rock and grow a colony of lichen on the rock, learn what it needs to grow.
  • Find ways to show how these plants fit into the overall forest ecosystem.


  • Use data sets gathered over the prior 40-50 years about Lake Tahoe’s water, and allow students access to the data electronically and on paper so they can create grade-appropriate projects interpreting the data on the “Data Wall”. lake tahoe mapData wall is in process so kids could assemble their own wall-sized bar charts with magnetized sticks to explore graphing concepts and key data.
  • Provide microscopes up to 400x so students can see bacteria and small organisms in their water samples.
  • Create an exhibit around a small boat with actual aquatic invasive species like Quagga and Zebra Mussels attached so the kids could touch them, see their size and descriptions to learn about boat decontamination to protect water quality. NV Dept of Wildlife could be a possible exhibit partner.
    • Create a pressure measurement tool kids could push on to see how much pressure they can deliver vs. how much pressure is required to create a rock.
    • Make topo maps available for area peaks and allow kids to check out compasses to learn basics of orienteering.
    • Offer rock samples they can touch and develop an exhibit on how granite is formed.
    • USGS or Tahoe Rim Trail as possible exhibit partners.
  • ASTRONOMY: Work with 2nd or 3rd grade class to build simple 3D models of constellations visible from Tahoe and hang those from the ceiling to create a permanent exhibit.
  • EXPERT TALKS: Develop a regular schedule of local environmental science experts to host talks about current environmental issues, seminars, training sessions. Would need resources like a portable Promethean board to show slides and images.
  • OUTDOOR: Create maps so groups can walk along adjacent trails leading from the Center to the north of the school, by the creek and down to the lake that will explain things like changing tree and ground plants, creek and watershed characteristics, rock types, symbiotic relationships between trees and certain plants, along with footprints the reader might see and bird habitats.

Long-Range Opportunities:

  • Build out multiple copies of Lake Lessons in a Box for each grade-level curriculum
  • Use the space to host external programs like Camp Invention and Nature Bowl, again drawing in students for ZCES and surrounding schools.
  • Create a YouTube channel or some means for capturing student video logs about their experiments, experiences, sightings, husbandry for the Center’s plants or fish, and their videos become part of the data available for other students.
    • Allow students to check out waterproof digital cameras with easy access points in the Center to load that data back into the data pool.
  • Add an online scheduling tool to the school’s website so ZCES and outside teachers could set aside time for their classes and possibly order materials instantly, without waiting on staff.
  • Add an exterior door on the Plant Wall and descend directly into a small forest environment with arboretum-type descriptions of the various plant life, create an outdoor space that mimics the Sierra forest.
    • Visitors could walk through with an instructor or on their own.
    • The space between the primary classrooms and back hall is not used now because the accumulated ice creates a risk for kids in winter. If we took out the asphalt and captured or re-routed run off, we could put in a mini Tahoe forest exhibit in that space.
    • Students would add that space to their playground.
  • Work with US Forestry to create an access path out the north door of the Center to easily get to the creek running just to the north of the school.
  • Tile the floor with the shape of the lake using different blues to illustrate the various depths of the lake.
  • Add exhibits along the hallway to Room 19 about Washoe history in the area, Tahoe-specific literature, historic news coverage.

Timing & Milestones:

  • Feb 2016: Approved by Douglas County School District to move forward – Done
  • Mar-Dec 2016: Gathering and developing curriculum that ties in with Common Core, NGSS and NvACS, and is grade-level specific – Done
  • June – Aug 2016: Preliminary painting, room prep and start the main mural on the North Wall and get budget approved to set up for Year One – Done
  • Aug 2016: ZCES teachers can start using the Center as it complements their instructional plans – In process.
  • Dec 2016: Once curriculum has been established for a grade, begin marketing to area schools to attract teachers for fieldtrips. Post those materials on our website.
  • Next steps about promoting the facility to be determined based on progress on curriculum and exhibit development.