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Biology researchers connect elementary school students with climate change, wetlands

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You don't expect to hear the crisp sounds of the wetlands in the basement of a school – even at Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, Virginia’s first and only charter elementary school, situated near Reedy Creek and the James River Park System. But one afternoon in March, students were crafting models of food webs and examining slides under microscopes as a video of marshland animals looped nearby.

A group of professors, post-docs and students from the Department of Biology, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences, led a four-day workshop for elementary schoolers on the basics of how climate change is impacting wetlands.

“We're funded by the National Science Foundation to look at how wetlands will respond to climate change,” said Rima Franklin, Ph.D., associate professor of biology. “Today we are working in different groups with the kids in the key aspects that go into that research.”

The school’s location, nestled next to Forest Hill Park on Richmond’s Southside, was conducive to breaking down the complexities of climate change.

“Patrick Henry is sitting right here on James River Park, and on Reedy Creek. We've taken them outside and taken them to the creek,” said Bonnie Brown, Ph.D., professor and associate chair of biology. Franklin, Brown and Scott Neubauer, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, are principal investigators on the grant, “Climate Change Effects on Coastal Wetlands – Linking Microbial Community Composition and Ecosystem Responses.”

A group of professors, post-docs and students from the Department of Biology, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences, recently led a four-day workshop for Richmond elementary school students on the basics of how climate change is impacting wetlands.

The grant includes a community education component on environmental science. In each small group at Patrick Henry, VCU teams began with basic concepts that students already understood and tied them into the larger research goals.

“We started out with the idea of germs. All the kids know what germs are. But the world is also full of all these microbes that do good stuff for us,” Franklin said. “The first day they actually went on a microbe hunt. We gave them some petri dishes, and we sent them outside and in different areas of the school to get samples and grow them.”

Afterwards, students inspected their petri dishes and talked about the hypotheses they had about samples from different parts of the school.

We're trying to break down the complicated phenomena into little parcels that they can then understand.

In another room, students watch a digital readout as different items are placed into a big plastic box. A device measures how much carbon dioxide is being produced, so students can visualize the difference between a cup full of worms and a cup full of dirt, for instance.

“We're trying to break down the complicated phenomena into little parcels that they can then understand. They'll be hopefully excited about measuring something, and drawing that thing that we’re measuring,” Brown said.

A group of students followed Brown through the school’s large garden and lawn, collecting flowers, buds, gumballs and other objects to draw. The students then took the items inside for an up-close look under a microscope.

“Every time we do one of these small activities, relate it to the fact that they are lucky to be here in the city, but have a park and a wetland and a creek and water,” Brown said, “and how then they can think about all this to take care of those resources.”

Assisting with the workshop were:

Joseph Battistelli, Ph.D. – instructor, Department of Biology

George Giannopoulos, Ph.D., Daniel (Dong) Lee, Ph.D. and Katherine Hartop, Ph.D. – postdoctoral researchers, Department of Biology

Gabriella Balasa and Olivia De Meo – technicians, Department of Biology

Joseph Morina, Chansotheary Dang, and Enjolie Levengood - graduate students, Department of Biology

Ben Stone, Diana Carey and Shira Lanyi – undergraduate students, Department of Biology

Biology graduate student Enjolie Levengood examines petri dishes with workshop participants.
Biology graduate student Enjolie Levengood examines petri dishes with workshop participants.

 

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Students search for objects to draw and look at under a microscope.
Click to view slideshow. Students search for objects to draw and look at under a microscope.