BISBEE — Clad in neonorange vests and hard hats, a group of students boarded vans for their Thursday morning our of the mining property of the Copper Queen Branch of FreeportMcMoRan Copper and Gold, Inc.

They are the first Cochise County chief science officers (CSO), and are on a mission to learn about science, technology, engineering and math, better known as STEM, from those who live it.

Each was chosen by their peers from the school districts to be a part of a forward push of STEM into rural areas, explained an enthusiastic Kelly Greene, CSO director of student success.

Eighth- to 10th-grade students from Tombstone, Willcox, Bisbee and St. David were ready and excited to be the first to jump into this new idea of exploration of STEM by actively meeting and talking with those already working in various fields of expertise.

Kal Mannis, project director of Rural Activation and Innovation Network (RAIN), is working with the CSO program, and is encouraged by the response of rural schools to participate. “I was a science teacher, and I know students in rural areas didn’t have good resources, like the metro districts,” he said. “I wanted to bring that to rural students.”

Though the program was offered to all the districts in Cochise County, not all are participating, noted Greene. Grades sixth through 12th were invited.

The first stop was the famous Lavender Pit, and the students got a bird’s-eye view of the chasm which, in part, produced a lot of the stockpiles that now, as they have aged and settled, look more like strange, giant hills.

Robert Qunitanar, FMI manager of resource reclamation, noted 100 million tons of rock came out of the Lavender Pit.

These stockpiles of rock and dirt around the wards of Bisbee are being transformed, as FMI grades, caps, and grows native vegetation, not just for aesthetics, but to capture water and help it find its way to the aquifer, explained Shane Gill, FMI manager of the ongoing reclamation projects.

He and Quitanar showed the students from a perch high above the town how the projects looked at the beginning and at the end. They talked about the wild visitors who come to drink from the pools and stock tanks the mining company provides.

First, the hillsides must be graded — a difficult task, began Gill. Most of the grades FMI deals with have a very steep slope.

To prevent erosion and to get the seeds to sprout, the slope must be gentler and terraced. Then, a large gravel base is added to the top, followed by a 2-foot layer of soil for seed germination and a layer of mulch to protect new seedlings.

All the rock and soil is trucked in and tested before being used for reclamation.

Quintanar said the seed used is a special mix developed for the Bisbee area, and contains native grasses and wildflowers that will grow at the 5,000-foot elevation of the high desert.

The monsoon rains provide the necessary water to wet the top and seep down into the rock pile. It is enough to generate a lot of evaporation, which
helps maintain the vegetation, Gill noted.

“We have to manage a lot of water,” Quintanar told them. “We can get  25,000 gallons per minute in the monsoon.”

Gill asked them to try to see if they could tell where the wild vegetation ended and the reclamation efforts began. It was a puzzlement.

Quintanar said, “We do this voluntarily. It’s the right thing to do, and it takes decades to do it.”

One of the reclamation projects involved 1,000 acres of old tailings storage ponds, said Gill. The resulting product won FMI a national award.

“The company wants to show its good environmental stewardship,” said Gill.

After the tour, the students were brought back to the training building. They had lunch, and while they ate, Greene told them about the upcoming events for them.

A training session in January, a meeting at Kartchner Caverns, election of officers in April — all things to look forward to in their first semester as CSOs.

“I am delighted you are the first CSOs in Cochise County. Stand up, step up, and speak up,” said Greene. “We need you to be a part of the discussion.”

The day was not over yet, though. Greene explained they would be introduced to a lot of new people, some who would help them grow in their fields.

She told them how to introduce themselves, how to shake hands. The she told them to go talk to the adults in the room and discover one thing about the person.

Mannis said, “You have an opportunity right now. These adults can be a part of your network. You need to learn how to interact with professionals. All of you are scientists, too. Ask them questions.”

The students sought out the adults and struck up conversations in an engaging manner. It was hard to tell who was having more fun.

Matthew Herrera, a 10th-grader at St. David, was pleased the mining company cared about the environment and took on the reclamation process. He shared, “I had fun. It was interesting.”

Ninth-grader Cheyenne DeSpain, also a St. David student, said, “It was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. It was fun.”

It was an eye-opening day for St. David 10th-grader Vivian Wagner. “I never knew reclamation was a word. It was super interesting. I loved it.”

Marek Haynie, St. David eighth-grader, said, “It was very interesting. I learned a lot of new things today.”

St. David students Allison Daley, in eighth grade, and Stephanie Mineroz, a ninth-grader, were excited to be picked as CSOs, and look forward to their futures in the program.

Elena Ryan , the Cochise County CSO regional lead noted 34 students from the county were in the program. She looks forward to including more students in the future.


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