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.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Summary of the June 2011 SIFT Sessions

Another June of SIFT sessions at SNR has come and gone. It was a great year, and now that it's mid-July, a summary of the sessions is probably a bit overdue. Like most previous years, this year's SIFT program was divided into three sessions, each lasting one week. Session one had 18 students, while sessions two and three both had 14 SIFTers, for a total of 46 participants.

For those who haven't experienced SIFT, a run-down of the week's activities follows. On day 1 the focus was getting SIFTers acquainted with each other, SNR staff, and the nature reserve in general. After a series of "getting to know you" activities and a talk about outdoor safety, the SIFTers learned a bit about navigating with a map, compass, and GPS unit. After lunch, the students were split into groups of 4-6 and asked to find their way from the Dana Brown Overnight Center to a point unknown to them (the Maritz Trail House). They were given a series of instructions to follow (i.e. take a compass bearing of 220 degrees and walk 60 paces) that required them to use the navigational skills and tools that they had just learned about. Fortunately, the lessons seemed to have sunk-in and no groups were lost for too long.

Day 2 focused on observation. After a brief lesson on field sketching, students then began an isopod inquiry. Each group was given a few isopods to observe. They were asked to note details about the isopods' physical characteristics and behaviors. Next, students generated a list of questions about isopods. The overall purpose of this lesson was to get SIFTers into an observational frame of mind and to get them thinking about how to turn observations into scientifically investigable questions. Day 2 also included a lesson on dichotomous keys. After a brief lesson on how to use and create these keys, the SIFTers were split into groups to create their own dichotomous key for a series of tree leaves. After lunch, the program switched gears and students were introduced to abiotic water testing. This was used to prepare students for day three.

The third day of each SIFT session was acquatics day. The morning was spent at Wolf Run Lake doing abiotic testing and a biotic sampling of the lake's macroinvertebrates. SNR staff facilitated the morning's activities, but the afternoon was essentially conducted by the SIFTers themselves. After lunch, the groups moved to Brush Creek where the SIFTers were on their own to decide how to conduct the same biotic and abiotic sampling that they had performed at Wolf Run. All three sessions of SIFTers handled this situation with ease. The highlight from this year's acquatics day occurred in session 2 when a good sized snapping turlte was found in Brush Creek! The last part of this day was spent indoors debriefing the day's activities. In small groups, the SIFTers worked to draw conclusions about the overall condition of Wolf Run and Brush Creek based on the data recorded through the course of the day.

The fourth day of SIFT centered on plant life in a variety of ecosystems. In small groups, the SIFTers conducted random sampling of the plants in a prairie, a glade, and a woodland. Again, there was a debriefing session where the SIFTers worked in 3 separate groups to assess the data from the ecosystem assigned to their group.

Day 4 also included an overnight stay. The most informative aspect of the overnight occurred when the SIFTers participated in short question/answer sessions with actual field scientists, researchers, and/or grauduate students (sometimes TERFers too). These sessions were a great opportunity for the SIFTers to ask questions and learn about college, potential careers, the joys of field biology, etc.

The final day of SIFT centered around ants, and was led by Dr. James Trager. SIFTers were given bags of bologna and pecan sandies (cookies) to use as ant bait. Pairs of SIFTers spread out around the overnight center, placed their bait, and then waited for the ants. As the ants arrived, students were asked to identify each new species (using an incredibly user-friendly key created by ant expert Dr. Trager). The students were also asked to observe the ants and their behaviors. One of the highlights from this year's ant baiting was when a couple of carpenter bees got too close to bologna that was covered in ants. Even though the bees weren't trying to take any of the bologna, the act of getting close to the ants' food source resulted in their being swarmed and killed by the much smaller ants. It was somewhat grisly to watch, but left this viewer with a much greater appreciation for the utter determination of some ants to defend important resources.

The final project undertaken by SIFTers could be seen as the culmination of the week's study. The students were split into 3 or 4 groups and asked to design a research project. Each design had to include a research question, a hypothesis, a list of the materials needed to conduct the project, the time-frame required to complete their research, and an overview of the method(s) that would be used to analyze the data. Upon completing their research design, each group presented their project to the rest of the group. Next, SNR staff and the other groups of SIFTers critiqued the project, with the goal of bringing the group to a better idea of what is realistically investigable and what a well-designed research project entails.

Overall, it was a great month with a great group of students. Sorry SIFTers if this entry is a bit dry. The goal was to inform other folks about SIFT. Upcoming blog entries will focus more on your experiences in the various projects.

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