Lake Erie wets down teachers, students while firing scientific excitement

July 6, 2010 | Research, UToday
By Cynthia Nowak

Todd Crail, UT graduate student in biology, prepared to lower away, collecting samples from Lake Erie that researchers hope will reveal patterns in aquatic communities.

Todd Crail, UT graduate student in biology, prepared to lower away, collecting samples from Lake Erie that researchers hope will reveal patterns in aquatic communities.

The suntan-lotion fragrance couldn’t entirely overpower some of the other scents: decomposing mayflies, for example, and the sweat that comes with hours spent dredging sediment samples from the floor of Lake Erie.

But it was all the smell of science to the eager participants — UT faculty and students, plus Toledo Public Schools teachers — in a two-week learning project that took them onto the lake and into the labs of UT’s Lake Erie Center.

The object of their scrutiny was the plume of warm water exiting the Bay Shore Power Station in Oregon. That warmth is creating an environmental micro-system that until now hasn’t been studied in much detail, explained Dr. Daryl Moorhead, one of four UT professors of environmental sciences involved in this summer’s research; the others are Drs. Timothy Fisher, Hans Gottgens and Carol Stepien.

“That little area on the output side of the power station is kind of a different microcosm,” Moorhead said. “The water is much warmer than it would normally be and provides a refuge for organisms that wouldn’t normally do well in the lake. So the Corbicula — Asian clams — are doing quite well in that area, but Dreissena — zebra mussels — aren’t quite as prevalent as we thought they would be.” Both are invasive species; both have in the past 20 years lived and died in such tremendous numbers that their shells have formed a new layer of material on the lake bottom.

“A lot of native species seem to have adapted to this substrate,” he noted. “Mayflies, for instance, which are critical food for lake fish, live most of their lives underwater, and they’re in this substrate.”

It’s uncharted territory, he added: “Who knows what’s going to happen?” The research topic, he said, was based on suggestions from last year’s project participants, many of whom were back. “They’re interested in energy, in the lake and in the interaction between the two.”

Different aspects of the ongoing project are funded through various sources. The GK-12 Program — which pairs UT graduate students with local K-12 science teachers — is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through a grant, “Graduate Fellows in High School STEM Education: An Environmental Science Learning Community at the Land-Lake Ecosystem Interface.” IMPACT (Inquiry Masters Program for Advancing Content for Teachers), funded by the U.S. Department of Education, allows teachers of grades four through 12 the chance to earn a master’s degree in biology within two years.

Moorhead noted that many K-12 science teachers receive little exposure to hands-on science in the course of their education. “So when they get to a research site, we want them to ask student questions, not teacher questions. Rather than ‘How can I teach this?’ they can get excited by the science itself. I’m hoping that attitude comes back into their classrooms.”

Judging by Wendy Wilson, who teaches science at Start High School, it does. She enjoyed the sediment-sampling trips out onto the lake via pontoon boat and Zodiac, wishing her own students could share the experience. “It’s important for them to see how science applies to the place they live,” she said. “And as part of this learning community, I can share ideas with other science teachers and with science researchers.”

The hands-on aspect — unique in the other such NSF-funded projects nationwide — makes the experience especially valuable, said Tamara Smith, a teacher at Rogers High School who was back in the lab weighing the sediment and tallying the living creatures collected. “We see and do things we don’t normally get to experience.”

And they’ll have bragging rights, Moorhead noted. “This truly is a preliminary research project. The data they’ve collected will be among the first of its kind.”

The faculty hope to publish one or more papers on the research, not only expanding the science but also providing a foundation to fund more such projects — and more such learning communities.

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