Science is cool... and it's about time we showed kids that!

By Clayton Manning

Midshipman. Photo by Jen Reynolds

Midshipman. Photo by Jen Reynolds

Midshipmen are not ordinary fish - their songs are loud enough to wake houseboaters, they have rows of small light-producing organs that resemble buttons on the uniforms of naval officers (hence their name), and the males come in two distinct reproductive types, guarders and sneakers.  However when Ruth Sharpe from Let’s Talk Science at UBC (LTS) was looking for a cool science project to get students from underprivileged Surrey high schools excited about BC's marine ecosystems, a strangeness or hook is exactly what she wanted.

Bird watching

Bird watching

Fast-forward twelve months... 
It's lunchtime on a Tuesday and sixty 15-16 year olds are laughing and joking around with their friends. It would be like any other regular school day for these Grade 10s from Kwantlen Park and Frank Hurt Secondary schools in Surrey, BC if it weren't for where they were, and what they were joking about. The sixty students are scattered in groups along Crescent Beach in White Rock, BC where they are sitting on rocks, eating lunch, and talking about how different the last two hours were from a normal day. There is no monotonous hum of an air conditioner today, just as there are no sweaty gym gear, textbooks or whiteboards anywhere in sight. On this particular Tuesday it’s the ocean breeze that provides relief from the mid afternoon sun, while the students don gumboots, garden-gloves and sunscreen, carry clipboards, and learn with their hands by jumping in and getting involved in research. This really wasn't an ordinary Tuesday. 

Dr Sigal Balshine teaching on the beach

Dr Sigal Balshine teaching on the beach

Students were led through a series of stations in teams of 4-5 by Dr. Sigal Balshine, a McMaster University scientist who is a world expert on plainfin midshipman --- today's focal species. Helping Sigal was Ruth Sharpe - from Let's Talk Science at UBC, a charitable outreach organization whose mission is introduce Canadian youth to the wonders and opportunities of science - and volunteers from UBC’s Zoology department well as a number of keen Vancouver Aquarium volunteers. At each station, teams of students were responsible for taking measurements and recording observations about midshipmen biology or their habitat. At one station, students scanned the horizon for potential predators including eagles, crows, herons or any bird they thought capable of eating midshipmen. At another station, students quantified nest density by counting the number of male and female midshipmen, nests, and the average rock length they found in small areas. At each station students learned how to conduct ecological research and used standard scientific techniques - just like real ecologists in the field. They also learned critical elements of the scientific method including repetition, consistency, and control groups. They learned this because Crescent Beach is an active research site. Oh... and the students were able to collect data that contributes to active research datasets to be used by Sigal’s team. So it was important that the students get it right, after all.

Sigal and her team have been using the plainfin midshipmen to study parental care, sperm competition, and the impacts of environmental contaminants (among other things). Midshipmen are super interesting in that males adopt two distinct reproductive tactics, called guarders and sneakers. Guarders aggressively compete for nest sites, which are excavated areas under rocks along sheltered, rocky shores, and sneakers creep into the nests of guarders when a female is present and fertilize eggs that way. Not the most romantic courting behaviour, but cool none-the-less. LTS leader Ruth Sharpe was intrigued. So after Sigal presented her research as part of the UBC biodiversity seminar series in spring 2015 (while on sabbatical at Project Seahorse), Ruth approached Sigal about the potential of using this bizarre fish to get students from high schools interested in science and the environment. It was a unique opportunity that aligned with The University of British Columbia's Centennial Initiatives Fund, a series of grants provided to projects that celebrate UBC's global contributions since it was founded over 100 years ago. 

Ruth and Sigal teamed-up, and were successful applicants for a Centennial grant. The Let’s Talk Science: Ecology, Evolution & Conservation Youth Outreach & Citizen Science Project was born! It was designed to target students who aren't normally given a chance to see how awesome science can be. Kwantlen Park and Frank Hurt Secondary schools in Surrey were identified as schools that would benefit the most from this exposure. Many of the students attending these schools have socioeconomic barriers and as a consequence have had fewer opportunities to learn about the marine environment and conservation. Despite a Grade 10 curriculum that includes topics like food-web dynamics and habitat interactions, the majority of students in these classes had never been on a fieldtrip to the beach, or even had the proper equipment to go to the beach. There is nothing that can inspire curiosity like learning with your hands and through direct observation.  After all, watching a bird dive-bomb a fish is a far better example of a trophic interaction than someone eating a ham sandwich in class.  This sentiment was confirmed by one of their teachers, Liz Bendfeld; "the students were so enthusiastic about the whole experience. I had students who were so proud of their accomplishments that day... For many of my students this field trip was the most excited I have seen them be about science all year."

Ruth and Sigal also wanted to show a different side of science - one that isn't often portrayed in the media. Cool, interesting young men and women from all backgrounds are increasingly the ones who are making the biggest strides in the science world - not just the Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory types. As Sigal put it, " science isn't limited to old white men in labcoats - but anyone who has a sense of curiosity." Surrey teacher Liz Bendfeld reflected this, praising the project for incorporating diversity, "What I thought worked great was the number of female science leaders. It is great for girls to have female role models." It was also important to Ruth and Sigal that students recognize that in some fields (such as ecology) a rocky beach, forest, grassland or coral reef is our version of a laboratory. We're not all standing in a brightly lit room with bloodshot eyes from looking through a microscope for too long.... Not that there's anything wrong with that :)  !

 

 

Photos by Sigal Balshine unless otherwise stated.