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EHS science building: from dream to reality

ELKO – What happens when you mix 14 animals, an eight-foot snake and two fish tanks among two dozen students, then add one teacher’s aide, one student aide, and one science teacher all in the same room?

In chemistry terms, such a mixture could be combustible. In education terms, it might be no different according to biology and zoology teacher Kristin Birdzell as she explains how she has adapted a retrofitted home economics room into her science classroom at Elko High School.

“These are counters for cooking, not for science. You end up with outlets along walls where we have to crowd a couple of students here,” Birdzell said. “Whereas, we should have electric outlets in the middle of the room where they sit right there at their table and do their work.”

Birdzell, who was recently named biology teacher of the year, has made her classroom functional in the six years she has been teaching at EHS, cramming snake and lizard tanks along the perimeter of the room with microscopes placed in between them on counters.

“I have a pretty big animal collection because these guys love it,” Birdzell said, nodding toward her students. “It’s like therapy to them.”

It’s not just the animal life that is creating the need for larger space, but new teaching methods in science that has prompted the school district to start the process of designing and constructing a new science building on campus. One that will allow more room for hands-on activities and new technology that could prepare high school students for a variety of college degree programs in multiple scientific fields.

The first step toward the new building has been made. Design West Architects was hired by the Elko County School District to provide a preliminary design for the new building. The decision was approved by the Board of Trustees on Feb. 12.

Although it’s not been fully finalized, the district sees “there is definitely a need and a lot of support for it,” said Casey Kelly, director of building operations and construction.

Once the final drawings are approved and the contract is put out to bid, the two-story building could include 11 classrooms.

So far, the cost of the building is unknown until the building size and type is approved, Kelly said, but the district considers it to be more cost effective than remodeling the existing labs in the Junior and Senior buildings. It would also free six to eight classrooms in those buildings for other purposes.

It would be the first new structure on the EHS campus since 1990 when the vocational/technical building was built, Kelly added. The last three main structures, Centennial Gymnasium, the Junior and the Senior buildings were all constructed in 1968.

Constructed 50 years ago, the science classrooms were not designed to incorporate new technology or the recently implemented Nevada Science Standards, Birdzell explained. Even if the lab's gas lines were repaired and electrical systems were brought up to speed, the classrooms are “virtually obsolete and/or nonfunctional.”

“The age of the existing buildings has resulted in spaces too small to maintain safety as the population of Elko has grown,” Birdzell explained.

The effort to bring attention to the state of EHS’s science classrooms started with retired teacher Dave Meisner, Birdzell said.

“He fought for years for renovations. It's not a brand new thing,” Birdzell explained, rather it is "the luck of timing and how it fell into place.”

It was the recent $55,000 grant from Barrick to the school district for the purchase equipment for physics, chemistry and DNA experiments that signaled the teachers and the district to seriously look at constructing the new building. Birdzell conducted research and spoke with the school’s other science teachers to determine what was exactly needed and presented it to the school district.

“Right now, our electrical, water and gas facilities are not even capable of meeting current needs,” Birdzell said.

Science teacher Annie Linder is one of the EHS science teachers who said she is looking forward to having more room for inquiry labs and investigations that “engage students in their science education.”

“This will help me incorporate more research and project-based learning into my lessons, Linder said. “I am eager to incorporate new labs and activities into my units to get students excited about science.”

Student preparation is critical now that next generation science standards are being introduced in elementary schools starting as early as kindergarten, Birdzell said. Overall, it is a shift from “rote memorization of details and more on the process of science.”

By focusing on inquiry and discovery, students seem to be less intimidated by science and are enjoying science class more, Birdzell explained.

“Middle schools switched over to it, and I’m seeing those kids now. I think I get less of [them saying] science is boring,” she said.

Attaching a “meaningful knowledge” of science to high school students is also Linder’s goal in the classroom.

“Students retain information that is meaningful to them,” Linder said. “I utilize many hands-on activities in our current facilities. Science education focuses on the development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills.”

The cramped quarters aside, Birdzell’s own passion for teaching has not diminished as she hopes her students are prepared for the rigors of biology studies in college, which is another benefit of the new building.

“In my time as a university tutor in the biology center, I could see a difference between those who had a strong background in biology and the ones who didn’t,” Birdzell said. “If you haven’t had a really strong background in science, you’re playing catch-up and feeling overwhelmed.”

When Birdzell entered Purdue University, her love of animals gave her dreams of first becoming an exotic animal veterinarian. The she decided to be a zookeeper, before finding out that the pay "was worse than teacher's pay."

“It’s a four-year degree, unpaid internships, and then work for minimum wage, basically,” Birdzell said. After graduating from college in 1998, Birdzell moved to Elko 12 years ago, married, had two children and found a job as a teacher.

In November, her efforts in education were recognized as she was named outstanding biology teacher by the National Association of Biology Teachers.

“I was honored to represent Elko High School and the state of Nevada at the awards ceremony in San Diego in a room full of very dedicated and distinguished biology education professionals from all over the country and all levels of education,” she said.

However, it’s the thought of a new science building that is more exciting than the award.

“It is gratifying to be recognized, but it is absolutely exhilarating to know that what we are doing right now and into next year will deeply impact the science education of thousands of young people in Elko for years to come,” Birdzell said.

“After all, making a difference in kids’ lives is ultimately why we, as educators, do what we do every day.”

The online version of this article corrected the amount of the grant from Barrick.

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Two arrested in stolen vehicle hauling nearly 3 pounds of meth on I-80 in Wells

CARSON CITY — Two Salt Lake City residents arrested in a stolen pickup on Interstate 80 face felony drug charges after nearly 3 pounds of methamphetamine and half a gram of heroin were later found in the impounded vehicle.

A Nevada Highway Patrol trooper stopped a pickup for speeding in Wells on Jan. 30. The vehicle, driven by Sheila Villalobos, was determined to have been stolen out of Utah. During the investigation, officers recovered methamphetamine and a handgun from the vehicle.

Villalobos and a passenger, Jesus Bernal Montes, were arrested for narcotics, firearms and stolen vehicle violations.

The stolen vehicle was impounded at a facility in Wells.

On Feb. 14, a member of the Elko County Sheriff’s Office used a narcotics-detecting K-9 to conduct an exterior sniff of the pickup truck. The K-9 alerted for controlled substances, so the vehicle was transported to Elko for further investigation.

On Feb. 15, members of the Elko Combined Narcotics Task Force obtained a search warrant and recovered almost 3 pounds of methamphetamine and .55 grams of heroin hidden inside.

Bail was set at $300,000 for Villalobos and $280,000 for Bernal Montes. The Elko County District Attorney’s Office filed criminal charges on Bernal Montes and Villalobos. They were bound over to Elko District Court on March 1.

This investigation involved the collaboration of the Elko Combined Narcotics Unit and the Nevada Highway Patrol. The ECNU is staffed by detectives from the Nevada Department of Public Safety, Investigation Division, the Elko County Sheriff’s Office, the Elko Police Department, and receives additional support from the West Wendover and Carlin police departments.

Snow to keep Nevada streams flowing

RENO – “Winter continues to flex its muscles,” the Natural Resources Conservation Service noted this week when it released its March 1 water supply outlook for Nevada.

“Across northern Nevada, streamflow forecasts are far above average and forecasted volumes are well beyond the amount needed to fill reservoirs,” the report said. “Expect streams to have prolonged high flows and snow to linger on the mountains into summer.”

The report noted that the past two years have produced “Januburied” and “Flooduary” (January and February 2017), then Miracle March (March 2018). Now, February 2019 has turned into another record setter.

“February 2019 produced staggering snowfall totals, incredibly light powder, lots of shoveling, and plans to keep ski lifts running past Independence Day,” said NRCS Nevada State Hydrologist Jeff Anderson. “NRCS data shows that a number of SNOTEL and snow courses across the region set new records for the biggest increase in snow water for the month of February.”

Surveyors sampled snow 13.5 feet deep at Mt. Rose Ski Area, for example. Squaw Valley ski resort in the Tahoe region set a new monthly snowfall record at 315 inches.

Precipitation amounts in February ranked second highest or highest on record at a number of SNOTEL sites across the region. Monthly precipitation in February was twice normal across the Northern Great Basin, Humboldt, and Clover Valley basins, bringing water year totals to 110-123 percent of average.

The Owyhee Basin and Eastern Nevada had slightly less than twice normal for the month and have water year totals at 108 and 124 percent respectively.

March precipitation was nearly three times the monthly average in the Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Carson and Walker basins, bringing water year totals to 133-146 percent of average.

March 1 streamflow forecasts are now greater than 160 percent of average in the Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Carson and Walker Basins. Forecasts in the Humboldt Basin range from 115-150 percent of average. Forecasts in Eastern Nevada are between 115-125 percent.

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Nevada Democrats propose early voting for 2020 caucuses

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nevada Democrats are proposing changes to their presidential caucus that could dramatically alter the way candidates compete in the state, opening the process to an early-vote and virtual participation.

The proposal would expand a single day of caucuses around the state to add four days of early caucuses and two days of early virtual caucusing.

The plan, which still needs approval from the Democratic National Committee, would allow more people to participate while likely driving candidates to appear earlier and more often leading up to the main event on Feb. 22, 2020. It would also likely force candidates to invest more resources to more deeply organize and target voters.

Alana Mounce, the executive director of the Nevada State Democratic Party, said the changes will broaden the options for caucus goers and give Nevada voters a process akin to the early voting many take advantage of in general elections.

“I think it makes the process more open, makes it more transparent and it’s more accessible because you’re able to go vote after work, you’re able to go in the morning before work,” Mounce said. “You’re able to still live your life instead of having to organize your life around one day and one event.”

The changes would particularly help those who are homebound or cannot spend hours at a Saturday caucus event, including many of the politically active casino workers in Las Vegas, Reno and elsewhere who might not work traditional Monday to Friday weeks.

The Nevada Democratic Party plans to release more details about its proposal in the coming weeks. The party will take public feedback on the plan before submitting it to the DNC for approval in May. The changes are part of a required move by the DNC to make caucuses in states like Iowa and Nevada more accessible.

“We are pleased Nevada Democrats not only share this goal, but are taking steps to make their process more open and inclusive for Nevada voters,” Brandon Gassaway, national press secretary for the DNC, said in a statement.

Iowa, which hosts the first-in the-nation contest, has announced it is proposing a virtual caucus where people could participate with phones or other devices.

Nevada Democrats don’t have specifics yet on what the virtual participation will look like and how it will compare to Iowa’s plans.

The party also does not have final details on the early, in-person caucus but it will differ from the main Saturday caucuses where voters show up at neighborhood sites and break into groups based on their preferred candidate.

Generally at the early caucuses, Democrats would be able to stop by caucus sites and fill out forms listing their preferred candidate and at least one alternate choice.

If an early voter’s first choice does not gain enough support in an initial round of voting at Saturday’s in-person caucuses, the early voter’s second choice would be counted and added to those attending in-person.

Early votes will be worth the same as those cast on the main day, and any vote totals from the early caucusing would be kept secret until final results are released at the end of the main caucuses. Results collected through the end of that day will lock in how 36 Nevada delegates will be awarded to the candidates.

Jorge Neri, a political strategist who served in 2016 as Hillary Clinton’s state director in Nevada and organizing director during the caucuses, said it’s a change for the better to allow more people to participate, but candidates will have to have very organized teams to mobilize supporters.

“You would have to really build up your field team and spend more time working to educate people on this process,” Neri said.

With more days and ways to vote, the presidential campaigns would likely want to identify and target voters based on how they most likely will participate.

Candidates who appeal to younger voters may emphasize virtual voting while targeting on early caucusing days those they know might not be able to attend a Saturday caucus.

Mounce said the early voting will also give candidates away to bank support before the main caucus, more quickly converting enthusiastic attendees at rallies or other appearances into a vote.

“They’re going to be able to say, ‘You can go vote for me now,’” she said.

The party has not settled yet on when the earliest voting might start and whether the days will one consecutive window of early voting.

Mounce said the first day could be scheduled for any time in the 10 days after the New Hampshire primary’s second-in the-nation contest.