This educational collaboration between Washington University's Tyson Research Center and the Missouri Botanical Garden's Shaw Nature Reserve is designed to engage St. Louis area high school students in scientifically-based exploration of the natural world. Linked programs of field training (SIFT) and field research (TERF) provide teenagers with experiences that realistically reflect research in environmental biology. Participating teens learn a variety of field investigation skills and then have the opportunity to put those new skills to work assisting career scientists with real research projects.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

SIFT Water Quality Monitoring Projects

There have been several water quality monitoring projects this summer, both at Shaw Nature Reserve and at Forest Park. Students practiced the skills in evaluating biotic and abiotic factors they learned during the week of field training, and learned new skills like measuring water velocity and using a kick net.

Monday, October 5, 2009

SIFT Grasshopper Survey

Another project surveyed Shaw Nature Reserve's grasshoppers. In this project, students netted grasshoppers from meadows, prairie, glade and woodland areas of the reserve (some using Kaleb's unique spinning technique). After lunch, representatives of each species were examined under stereoscopes, identified, and pinned for curation.

SIFT Dragonfly Surveys

After the week-long summer program, SIFTers had a chance to participate in projects that took place during the rest of the summer and into the fall. One of these projects was a survey of Shaw Nature Reserve's dragonflies. Students used binoculars to spot the dragonflies and get a closer look to identify them. We travelled from the Dana Brown wetlands to Wolf Run Lake, and took a look at some of the fields and prairies as well. At Wolf Run Lake, one slaty skimmer dragonfly was particularly unlucky to have been caught by a mantis. The last photo shows a spangled skimmer, one of the least common of the dragonflies we identified during the survey.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ant Study and Goodbyes

Everyone packed up early and had breakfast before we started with the last few activities. James described the day's ant behavior study and students gathered bait and went out to find their study subjects. After a few hours of observation, students returned to report what they had discovered. After lunch, we watched a slideshow of images from the week's activities and Lydia explained the next step in the SIFT program: summer and fall projects. Then students went out on a scavenger hunt using their GPS skills, and were happily suprised at what they were able to bring back. It was a lively bus ride home as the SIFTers exchanged e-mails and planned ways to keep in touch with their new friends.

Terrestrial Ecosystems and Overnight

We started the day with a short powerpoint about scientific communication and the three basic characteristics of good figures (clear! concise! honest!). Next James gave students an overview of terrestrial ecosystems and described plant forms and leaf shapes that the students would have a good chance of observing. Then we took a short trip out to the Dana Brown Center's prairie, where students in small groups got to practice the hula-hoop method of random sampling, and take a closer look at the plant life there. After lunch, it was back out the the Trailhouse where we did the same sort of sampling and looked at the plant life of the glade and woodland.

Tonight was the overnight, so after debriefing the day's activities, students moved into the lodges and had a break to read, talk, and play games (soccer!). Before dinner, scientists from Tyson Research Center arrived and the students had a chance to travel around in groups and get to know them better. Conversations continued during dinner. After dinner, students went out without flashlights on a night hike, which ended up being one of the group's favorite June memories. When the hikers returned, James had set up a white sheet and light to collect night insects. There was also a campfire where SIFTers could continue to get to know each other while eating S'mores.

Aquatic day!

Things got off to a quick start as students packed up for a full day in the field. First, we packed equipment and took the wilderness wagon off to Wolf Run Lake. Students collected and identified macroinvertebrates and ran the water quality chemical tests they practiced earlier in the week. After lunch at the Trailhouse, we hiked down to Brush Creek to repeat the biotic and abiotic testing. At the end of the day, students worked in groups to report their data and discussed the health of the two bodies of water.

Honing Observation Skills

After a lesson on nature sketching, SIFTers visited the Dana Brown wetland and took some time to sit on the boardwalk and practice sketching. Next, Lydia led an isopod observation and students came up with researchable questions based upon their observations. Then the students worked in teams to build branching keys using leaves. After lunch, students had a chance to practice using chemical tests for water quality that they would be taking into the field on aquatic day. Each team moved from station to station, learning the quirks of each chemical test and solving water quality mysteries. Luckily, we had time for a few team-building games before boarding the bus, which were a big hit (Thanks Aileen!)

SIFTers get acquainted

On day one of this past June's weeklong SIFT training, students focused on collaboration. After playing some games aimed at finding out what students had in common, Lydia explained plans for the week and Aileen talked about outdoor safety. After lunch, students learned how to use GPS units, topographic maps and compasses, and were sent out in small groups to follow a course. Each group followed a different path, and along the way met with some interesting challenges (high water, lizard up the pants leg) and were able to see some interesting features and wildlife of SNR (the cave, frogs, turtles... an armadillo...)

Students also worked on assignments at points along the way, including stopping to draw some flowers. SIFTers learned to work together and spent some time getting to know each other while they hiked. By the end of the day, all the groups made it back to relax at the glade overlook and to grab some lemonade and reflect on the day at the trailhouse.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

SIFT returns to the blog

With the September meeting of SIFT just around the corner, it's definitely time to revisit highlights from this summer's SIFT program, from the week of field training to the various projects that have been going on.

I'm Catrina Adams, an instructor at Shaw Nature Reserve, and I'll be adding SIFT-related posts to bring the blog up to date in that department. To all the 2009 SIFTers reading this blog...hope this brings back some good memories from the summer! For anyone else stumbling in or interested in the program...hopefully the next series of posts will give you a better idea of how the SIFT program is evolving.

Monday, August 31, 2009

First All-TERF Meeting on Saturday, August 30th

We had our first all-TERF meeting on Sunday, August 30 from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. It was great to see teens from the June and July programs in the same room at the same time! And there was a lot of laughter as the group shared memorable events from their time in the field.

(Tick bombs, building scaffolding, attacks by leeches, pining insects, lizard bites, digging ponds, running in a hail storm, etc.)

We spent some time laying the groundwork for the research communication part of the project. There are two angles that we would like to cover - (1) the scientific research projects and (2) the field internship experiences. Both are critical to telling the TERF story.
  • POSTERS: A well-crafted poster can be a very effective communication tool. Each TERF teen will be creating a large poster that is representative of a single research project from the summer. Rather than focus on the data and conclusions that are presented in a traditional scientific poster, we would like these posters to convey "the point" of each particular project to a public audience. The goal here is to bridge the communication gap between scientists and the public. The teens hope to make the research projects accessible to a non-scientist audience.
  • TERF ON TOUR: There is also a plan to take TERF on tour! We would like to schedule presentations at each of the high schools represented in this cohort. These will be short PowerPoint presentations to science classes, accompanied by question and answer sessions. This will be a chance for the teens to tell their personal stories of the TERF experience. An excellent way to recruit the next SIFTers!
  • SYMPOSIUM: The group decided that a symposium at the Tyson Living Learning Center would be another good way to share their experiences with others. So, we are looking to invite family, friends, and researchers to the afternoon event on Saturday, January 30th.
  • SHARE w/SIFT: There has been a lot of interest from both the SIFTers and the TERF teens to find a time to meet. We will try to fit this in during the SIFT Winter Weekend.
Quite a lot to squeeze into this school year! But there is a lot of enthusiasm and momentum, so hopefully we will get it all done.

Monday, July 20, 2009

July Group Highlights

While each research team goes its own way in the field, there are several opportunities for the TERF group, as well as all of the staff and researchers at Tyson, to reconvene. One of them is the Natural History Session and July is off to a wonderful start.

The first Natural History Session on July 9th was led by staff ecological technician Travis Mohrman. The subject was Wilderness Survival and above, he shares his knowledge with the TERF teens.

The second Natural History Session on July 16th was a tour of the neighboring Wild Canid Center that most Tysonians see every day, but usually don't get to explore. Here, two TERF teens and two undergrads try to spot Mexican wolves in one of the sanctuary's expansive enclosures.

In addition to the beautiful, cooler weather, July's second week was particularly sweet because there were two reasons to celebrate.

The first was TERF teen Crystal's birthday. Above, she carves the cake we provided as an end-of-day surprise.

The second was a grant awarded to Dr. Jon Chase, Dr. Brian Allan and another research collaborator. The funding will support tick research, so the researchers decided to celebrate with red velvet cupcakes in the likeness of engorged ticks.

All in a day's work...

Session two, half-way through

Somehow, we're already through the first two weeks of the second session of TERF. Here's an update:

On the 6th of July, group 2 was introduced to the field station in the manner that has now become tradition: The Tour de Tyson Challenge.

Here, (with the help of a strategically placed clue outside the entrance) they make the acquaintance of the 310 lab building, which is used for various indoor analysis tasks.

Before long, they settled in to their research teams. A new team, affectionately termed "The Plant Consortium", was formed for this session to capture the overlapping research interests and similar study systems of Dr. Tiffany Knight, Dr. Tim Dickson and Dr. Laura Burkle.

Here, TERF teens Cassandra, Shayla and Mary of the plant consortium pin and label pollinator specimens.

Here, Jenise - another TERF member of the plant consortium - works with an undergraduate on her team to collect data. These small blue tubs are currently scattered across Tyson as part of a project studying herbivory and flowering success in invasive purple loosestrife.

The other two research teams - the aquatic team and the tick team - took on their new teens and embarked on some new tasks for July.

Following the first week of July, the aquatic team has been largely based on-site, sampling cattle tanks. Here, aquatic TERFers Ashaki and Crystal assist with sampling efforts.

Here, Emily - a tick team TERFer - assists undergraduate Gena Pang with maintenance of the containers that house lizards and mice during her tick feeding preference study.

With a welcome break from the heat over the last few days, session 2 has been a great success, thus far.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Assessment between the June and July TERF sessions

As we did for the first summer of SIFT programming, we scheduled a week in between the sessions of TERF for formative assessment. We definitely wanted to allow time to assess how the first session went and what changes need to be put in place for the next session. Last night the research team leaders, TERF staff, SIFT program director, and evaluator all met to debrief the first session and talk about moving forward into July.

Our external evaluator Dr. Kathi Beyer captured pages and pages of qualitative data from her interviews and observations, and quantitative data was provided through the results of climate surveys. We had the TERF teens complete a climate survey on each Friday afternoon of the four week internship. We also asked the research team leaders and field mentors to complete climate surveys at the ends of Week 1 and Week 4. All of this information provided us with assessment of both participant and mentor perspective, and ultimately with a more objective view of the first TERF session.

The good news is that the model we have implemented appears to be working!

There was some surprise at the high level of physical work and occasional monotony of tasks, but we have excited and engaged teens learning new skills and new content within an authentic research environment. And along the way they are gaining respect for the persistence and dedication required of field research.

Overall, the research team leaders appear to be pleased with the integration of the teens into their research projects. However, there were some bumps along the way, and there appears to be a difference in the experiences of large teams versus small teams. One-on-one tiny teams have a vastly different vibe compared to large teams with more than one TERF teen assigned. Consequently we have decided to form a "Plant Consortium" to make a larger team of three smaller research groups.

Other than the loose union of plant-related projects, there did not appear to be major change needed in the TERF session design. The communication lines and transportation logistics are all functioning well. There will be some additional topics to be covered during the on-boarding of the next set of teens. All research teams will make sure to present detailed project overviews to their assigned teens as a first thing, and the TERF staff will place additional emphasis on field safety, work level expectations, and hierarchy.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

TERF June and the weekly Tyson natural history sessions

While immersion in a specific research team is at the core of the TERF experience, there was exposure to different field areas through the Tyson natural history sessions. These weekly morning sessions offer chance for experts on each team to share some of their knowledge with everyone at Tyson and a great opportunity for the teens to explore a field different from their respective assignments.

Katherine, along with the rest of the teens on terrestrial teams, got her first chance to sample ponds during the aquatic natural history session.

Dr. Brian Allan and
Dr. Kevin Smith led the birding natural history session, acquainting the TERFers with binoculars, as well as the birds that happened to cross their path that morning.

Later that morning, Kevin directed the teens to guidebooks and merely supervised as they identified the birds they observed.

During the mammal natural history session, Josef, Yanwen and the rest of the TERFers got an early start to prevent trapped critters from overheating in the 90-degree weather that was typical of the first session. Here, Dr. Brian Allan explains how he handles mice in order to collect the data necessary for his study.

Pete got the hang of small mammal handling and made a new friend.

Brian ended the mammal session by reviewing footage from several baited camera traps.