Building Skills for Science and Life on the San Juan River

By Tory Syracuse

Northern Arizona University’s Upward Bound Math & Science (UBMS) program supports high schoolers who are potential first-generation college students.

According to Director Mark Despain, “UBMS focuses on working with students from five high schools in northern Arizona. Most of our students self-identify as Diné and live on the Navajo Nation.”


UBMS students and a Glen Canyon National Recreation Area scientist review data collected from acoustic monitoring equipment they have set up to listen for and record bat species while on the river. Photo: Walt Carr

UBMS offers students a summer academic program, called The Academy, designed to give them the experience of living in a college atmosphere before graduating high school. The culmination of The Academy is a GCY expedition, where students apply the science skills they’ve been learning on the NAU campus to the spectacular classroom of the San Juan River.

The GCY expedition provides participants with new experiences and skills as they prepare for the transition to college. From collecting field data to cooking their own meals, skills gained on the river help set these students up for future success in academics and life. 


According to Despain, “Our partnership with GCY has helped these students understand how water in northern Arizona, as a scarce commodity, is so important to their daily lives, communities, and Nation. Students take biological, chemical, and physics measurements at each camp site, then compile that data. But beyond the educational curriculum, the trip helps students understand that the San Juan River is a part of their heritage, and a part of their life as a water source for their homes and communities.”

Grand Canyon Youth Upward Bound Math and Science group photo
UBMS students prepare to launch on the San Juan River for four days of science and fun during the summer of 2019. Photo: Mark Despain.

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