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 22, 2016

SIFT Summer Projects at Shaw Nature Reserve

Fish Survey and Water Quality Monitoring - July 8

Six students experienced two aquatic-focused projects at Shaw Nature Reserve on a hot and humid day.  In the morning data was gathered on fish in the Pinetum Lake.  Students spent the first half of the morning catching as many fish as they could using a rod and reel. Many bluegills were caught along with a few large-mouthed bass.

Data including species identification, length and population numbers were collected on the fish before they were returned back into the lake.

After lunch the students loaded up the truck with their gear and headed down to the Meramec River where they conducted water quality testing as part of the Missouri Stream Team program.  They first conducted a site survey looking at vegetation along the banks, evidence of people, quality of the stream bed with a focus on algal and sediment coverage on cobbles and rocks, and color and odor of the water.

Checking the percent coverage of algae on the gravel bottom

Once the visual survey was completed, students conducted water quality tests that included dissolved oxygen, pH, nitrates and phosphates, water temperature and turbidity.  The final procedure involved the collection of macroinvertebrates using a kick-net. There was an abundance of stonefly, mayfly and caddisfly nymphs as well as a few crayfish. Using a metric provided by the Stream Team Project, they were able to determine that the water quality was very good. Once all of the data was collected, students returned to the office to enter their results on the Stream Team database.

Students entering data from their water quality survey

Invasive Oak Weevil Project - July 19

Dr. Laura Catano and Dr. Robert Marquis, both from University of Missouri - St Louis, needed some high school students to assist them in testing a citizen science program focusing on invasive oak weevils.  Basing out of the Trail House, nine SIFT students were trained in the protocol of the project.  They were then divided into small teams and sent out into the woodland to collect the weevils.  Field work included identifying the host trees to sample, identifying and counting insects on host plants, and counting leaves on sample branches.  After the collecting, students gave feedback to the leaders as to the ease of understanding the instruction and in the identification of the weevils.

SIFT team of collectors

On their way back to the Visitor Center, the group made a quick stop in the Sense of Wonder Woodland to play on some of the made-from-nature features.

Making their way across the TREE-mendous bridge

Friday, June 17, 2016

SIFT Training Week - Day 5 (It's all about ants!)

This morning, students had the opportunity to study ant behavior. After some general information about the test procedures, students were given two types of bait; a cantaloupe rind and a Pecan Sandy cookie. They also had an identification chart of the ants that were most common to the area. Their instructions were to set up their bait in several places around the center and to observe and record what happened. Which ants come to the bait first? Do they recruit other ants? What happens when two species encounter each other? Do they fight or does one species get chased off?

Observing ant behavior
After a morning of observation, the students were tasked with coming up with a researchable question about ants and then asked to design a research project around their question. Some of the questions that intrigued them most involved food choices, reaction to different light sources, and the effects of heat on life cycle development. Their presentations generated interesting conversation and everyone left with a better understanding of ants!

Before ending the week we celebrated our first  week of SIFT with ice cream sundaes. A great way to end a very hot but exciting week!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

SIFT Training Week - Day 4 (Terrestrial Day)

The focus today is on the land...the prairie, glade and woodland.  The day started with students getting practice with dichotomous keys as they identified different plant structures.

Sketching plant structures

Students were then ready to start their ecosystem investigations after some instruction from James Trager.

Instruction before conducting study

Hula hoops would be used to determine the study site.

Demonstrating how to conduct the studies

Students conducted plot studies in three different habitats, focusing predominantly on the plants found within...percent coverage, number of species, and plants with hairy stems or leaves.

In the prairie


In the glade


Woodland study

Students presenting their data
After moving into the lodges for the overnight students gathered back to watch a fascinating DVD on ants presented by the famous entomologist and naturalist, E. O. WIlson.  This provided some background information in preparation for tomorrows ant study. Later, students had the opportunity to talk with some visiting scientists before and during dinner and ended the evening with a night hike, campfire with s'mores, and black light viewing of insects.

Despite the heat everyone enjoyed s'mores!

An interesting array of insects were attracted to the black light

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

SIFT Training Week - Day 3 (Aquatic Day!)

The third day of the SIFT training week was focused on aquatic systems. The group visited Wolf Run Lake in the morning and Brush Creek in the afternoon. They performed water quality tests at the sites and sampled for organisms in the habitat, recording richness (number of species) and abundance (number of individuals of each species) in their field notebooks. They used these numbers and the species they found to predict whether the systems were healthy or polluted. 

Netting for small organisms

Water quality testing

Conducting water quality testing in the creek

Our mode of transportation - the "Large Barge"

After most of the day outdoors, we returned to the Overnight Center where students prepared their presentations on the results of their testing. 

Good news -- everyone agreed that both aquatic systems are healthy!

Students presenting their data

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

SIFT Training Week - Day 2

This day is all about observation. Although it was a hot morning, it was pretty comfortable as we worked under the Glassberg Family Pavilions.  After starting the morning off with some nature sketching, we moved on to close observation of isopods - better known as pillbugs and sowbugs. Students were asked to draw the isopods with as much detail as possible.  We then spent some time compiling the observations and noting questions that we had.  How do they eat? Do they lay eggs or give live birth? And many more! From there we moved on to looking at similarities and differences and students developed dichotomous keys using leaves from 10 species of Missouri trees.

Working under the pavilion

Drawing their isopods

Making leaf dichotomous keys
After a busy morning it was time to switch gears and prepare for the aquatic study on the next day. Students learned how to use the digital probes to record dissolved oxygen, water temperature and pH and also became familiar with using the chemical test kits for phosphates and nitrates. The day ended with students participating in simulations that presented a water quality issue.  Their goal was to determine what the cause of the issue was using the information that was given them.

Practicing using the test kits

Monday, June 13, 2016

SIFT Training Week - Day 1

This week is the training week for Cohort 9 of SIFT! Cohort 9 boasts 27 SIFTers from 19 schools, and they all made it to day one where they started off the week getting to know each other and getting comfortable at Shaw Nature Reserve.

We started the day with an overview of Nature Reserve and what to expect during the week, then moved outside for some icebreakers. Our discussion of field safety began with seeing who shared our opinions on what falls in our comfort, challenge, and panic zones and ended with examining live ticks in plastic boxes. Dr. James Trager gave a presentation on what exactly field biology means, and the SIFTers got to know each other more over lunch. After lunch, everyone got some practice with GPS units, navigating with a compass, and reading topographical maps before being sent out into Shaw to complete a challenge course in small groups.

Learning how to use a compass

The students were divided into 4 teams and were given different routes.  Teams following the yellow route were able to travel through woodlands and the Meramec River bottomland while those following the green route passed through wetland, tall grass prairie and woodland.

Two routes for the adventure

Teams 3 and 4 before they embark

And they're off......

They were given some tasks to accomplish along the way:
  • document things that you see using your field notebook and camera
  • make sure that everyone in the group is comfortable using all of the equipment
  • be observant
  • have fun!
Some things they saw along the way:



They had to stop along the way to make sure they were traveling in the right direction....

Crossing Brush Creek

They passed through several habitats....



Tallgrass prairie
All groups checked in at the Trail House right on time and were rewarded with some nice cold lemonade.  It was a good first day!

Monday, January 25, 2016

SIFT & TERF Winter Weekend

As part of a continuing tradition after the TERF Symposium at Tyson, the TERFers joined the SIFTers at Shaw Nature Reserve for an overnight.

Before dinner on Saturday evening, the SIFTers rotated through casual conversations with the TERFers, fire ecologist Dr. Rae Crandall, anthropology graduate student Kelsey Nordine, and World Bird Sanctuary naturalist Tess Rogers. Rae has hosted many SIFTers and TERFers on her research projects over the years and Kelsey is looking to include SIFTers in her dissertation research soon. For Tess it was a homecoming since she is a SIFT & TERF alumnae from the very first cohort. We were thrilled that she was able to bring an owl with her!

TERFers field questions from the SIFTers about what TERF is really like.

Fire ecologist Dr. Rae Crandall shares her career journey with SIFTers.

Washington University graduate student Kelsey Nordine takes questions from SIFTers.

Kelsey explains some of the techniques used in her paleoethnobotany research.

World Bird Sanctuary naturalist Tess Rogers talks about her job with SIFTers.

Tess and Barnaby

There were lots of owl selfies.

On Sunday morning, the SIFTers learned about winter ecology with Dr. James Trager while the TERFers hiked down to the Meramec River to survey the flood damage.

The TERFers had to make a stop in the cave where they found a frosty hibernating bat.

Floating ice makes beautiful natural art.

The TERFers (left) encounter the SIFTers (right) in the field. Who is going to make it back to the Assembly Building first?