Andreas Norlin, MixITiN ESR6, reports on his experience of “Being A Marine Scientist” with Ysgol Dewi Sant pupils
This week it is the British Science Week; this is an annual event held across UK promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics to the broader public. This is an opportunity for those of us working in science to showcase our work and get children interested in STEM when they are young, so they can learn to appreciate science before it becomes “boring” or difficult. During this week, Dr Mitra, I, Dr Sindia Sosdian and Dr Michael Nairn from School of Earth and Ocean Sciences Cardiff University went to Ysgol Dewi Sant in Llantwit Major. Our main aim was to help the pupils understand what plankton are and the importance of these. The pupils from Year 5 (10 year olds) and Year 6 (11 year olds) were going to work with us as Marine Scientists and try to piece together a marine foodweb. Each of the two year groups had one hour when they were “Coral Detectives” with Dr Sosdian and one hour with us where they were “Marine Scientists”.
The children were all eager to start and to find out what “props” we had. After a short introduction about marine science, we started the ‘building a foodweb’ activity. The pupils were divided into 4 groups (of 4-5 children each) and each group were provided with components of a different foodweb. The task was for the pupils to arrange these pictures of different organisms and make connections between them according to who eats what. It is always great fun watching how excited children get about nature and animals, and most of the animals we gave them were already known to them, such as dolphins, sea turtles, penguins and Sharks! Of course, various organisms were unknown to them – the primary producers (protist plankton), the primary consumers (copepods) and the decomposers (sea cucumbers, sea stars and sea worms). In all the different food webs they recreated, we had provided our main group of interest: “The Plankton”! We had provided three types of microscopic plankton for all their food webs – the zooplankton represented by copepods and Artemia, the phytoplankton represented by diatoms and of course the mixoplankton. For the last two categories, diatoms and mixoplankton we used some beautiful drawings by our very own Claudia Traboni.
While the students were trying to figure out the different food webs, we asked them if they could think of anything that was missing from these food webs. We had deliberately excluded two main biological processes that would prevent all the organisms from being easily connected to each other – remineralisation and decomposition. While we, marine biologists, typically refer to these as voiding and excreting, but to the amusement of the young audience, we told them that it is practically “poop” and “wee”. After some giggling, the finished food webs were presented to the other students.
Next we tried to encourage the pupils to identify the most important organisms in their foodwebs – the plankton! We followed this with a short presentation where we told the students how planktonic organisms have literally changed the history of life on Earth. Not only have they exploded in biodiversity within the oceans themselves and evolved into complex lifeforms, they have even changed the atmosphere of our globe converting most of the CO2, that was in the air billions of years ago, into breathable O2 that most organisms rely on today for survival. In addition to all this stuff being impressive and fascinating, one of the most basic reasons why planktonic organisms are important is that they are at the base of our food webs. We can have a world without dolphins, fish or even humans but we cannot have a world without our primary producers, which are the planktonic photosynthesizers. The base of our food web is the singe celled planktonic organisms that convert dead organic- and inorganic carbon into living biomass that can travel up through the trophic levels, and are ultimately feeding all life on earth.
We wanted to provide the children a glimpse of how we use mathematics to help understand biology and ecology. We wanted to demonstrate how simulation models uses maths to create beautiful graphs that aids science. Because of time restrictions we could only show a very simple model.
Outreach activities give us a chance to disseminate what we do in science to a non-specialist audience; this time we had the pportunity to interact with a future generation. For children it is not important to teach them hard-core science or make them understand how carbon is cycled in an ecosystem, the important thing is to awe them, show them interesting things and to encourage them to ask questions about the world we live in. Biology is as important now as ever with future challenges that can only be solved by scientists who are still in primary or secondary school. So if we just convinced 1 student from each of these years to become a scientist in the natural sciences, it was a successful day.