October 1, 2015
Contact: Shelley Dawicki
Nature’s Classroom Brings Scientists, Students Together
For more than 200 high school students and a dozen teachers in Connecticut, spending a day outside in the field doing science is a welcome chance to link classroom studies in biology, chemistry, environmental science and other fields with a real-world application.
“Kids get tired of reading about science and want to get out in the field and do science,” Jose Pereira said September 16 after another day on the waterfront hosting a group of students at Milford Point on Long Island Sound.
Pereira, a fisheries biologist at the NEFSC’s Milford Laboratory for 35 years, is part of Project Periphyton, an education program that links research on local watersheds with Long Island Sound and climate change. Periphyton is a mix of algae and microbes attached to submerged rocks and other surfaces. It is an important food source for marine life, can absorb contaminants, and is an indicator of water quality.
Project Periphyton began six years ago with grant funding from NOAA’s Office of Education as a way to link NOAA scientists with students and teachers from Connecticut high schools through an environmental science experience. The project combines classroom studies with field work in the Housatonic and Pomeraug River watershed region and the western end of Long Island Sound, where the rivers empty into the sound.
Students involved in the project work closely with environmental and aquatic scientists and educators to monitor water quality in the local watershed. They collect, record and analyze data and share it with the professional science community. Data on diatoms in the rivers and coastal areas, for example, is shared with other groups in Connecticut. Students compare freshwater and marine environments, and communicate their findings through reports and presentations.
Connecticut Audubon Society’s Coastal Center at Milford Point, where the Housatonic River empties into Long Island Sound, is the project’s coastal research staging area. Several days each week in the spring and early fall, a group of 20-30 science students from one of the participating high schools will arrive at the Center to conduct research with Pereira and volunteer Alberto Mimo, a retired employee from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
On this day, a group of Advanced Placement environmental science students from Newtown High School were on site. The students were divided into two groups; one group collected sediment cores and took chemical measurements of the water with Mimo, while the other used a seine to collect marine specimens with Pereira. All the data were recorded, and samples gathered. The sediment core was removed from the corer and packed in aluminum foil, and along with a bag of fish from Pereira given to teacher Karolyn Baumgartner to take back to the classroom for further study.
Baumgartner and colleague Stephanie Ramsey, who also teaches AP environmental science at Newtown High School, have participated in the program for the past five years, including professional development opportunities during the summer months. “The students love being outside interacting with their environment and doing science in a meaningful way. They are not just learning about science but they are doing science,” Baumgartner said, noting that most of the students had not taken an ecology or environmental science course before. “The students think it is cool to put on chest waders and use a seine. They are excited to see the different organisms we catch. They are getting wet, and dirty, and the data doesn’t always make sense, but sometimes it does and it is a wonderful thing. Going to Milford Point is a highlight every year. It is so great for students to interact with real scientists who are passionate about what they do.”
Pereira shows the students how to use the seine net, identifies the organisms they find, and explains how to measure fish. He also teaches them how to measure salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen in the water, and explains how they are related and why they are important to the environment. Mimo gives the students a brief history of the geology and formation of Long Island Sound and helps the students take a sediment core, which Baumgartner says the students love because they get to bang a tube into the mud.
“We take fish and the sediment core back to the classroom. The students make histograms for the number and size of fish and can clearly see at least two different size populations. They are able to relate that to different age populations of the fish, “ Baumgartner said. “We cut open the fish and look at the contents of their stomachs and try to relate them to the diatoms we find in a tributary of the Housatonic River, which empties into Long Island Sound at Milford.”
They also cut the sediment core into segments to find the moisture and organic content, sediment sizes through the core, and look for changes in color and texture. “The goal is for students to recognize changes in the environment over time,” Baumgartner said. “They can see how 30 years ago the sediments were larger and sandier, partly due to human impact - the building of the jetty. They can see evidence of Hurricane Sandy in the sediments as well, and are learning that the earth keeps a record of how we treat it.”
Last week, the Newtown classes went to local rivers to conduct chemical and physical analyses and to collect diatoms, a type of periphyton, to count in the classroom. They plan to compare conditions in the rivers in the fall and spring and submit the data to Mimo.
“Through the years we have worked with Jose Pereira in his lab, hear lectures from established scientists about climate change, done some beach seining at different locations along the Connecticut coast, and learned to identify diatoms,” Baumgartner said. “It has been a great experience.”
Participating Connecticut high schools include Crosby High School in Waterbury, Danbury High School, Newtown High School, Terryville High School, The Sound School in New Haven, and Wamogo Regional High School in Litchfield.
When Pereira is not involved in Project Periphyton, he conducts research on fish and fish habitats using geographic information system (GIS) mapping, and is currently working on a GIS project with the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program.
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