Dr. Sunshine Van Bael, principal investigator of the RFP-V project Chemical Evolution and Plant-Microbe Degradation of Petroleum in Saline Marsh Plants and Soil, and her colleagues recently hosted a series of workshops in Louisiana for nearly 140 elementary and middle school-aged kids. The workshops were part of Dr. Van Bael’s outreach efforts to teach students about the coasts and the challenges facing them due to global changes and oil spills.
Dr. Van Bael’s RFP-V project focuses on bacteria and fungi that live in salt marsh grasses called endophytes (specifically Spartina alterniflora). She is working to understand what happens to these endophytes when they are exposed to oil, including if they play a role in helping degrade it. The project has two components: a field effort to collect samples and analyze them in the lab to improve understanding of the bacteria and fungi and a modeling effort to better predict how endophytes move in water.
The first workshop, called “My Pet Endophyte,” relates to Dr. Van Bael’s RFP-V research. The kids participated in a nature walk where they learned about fungi, bacteria, Spartina, and endophytes. They each collected a leaf or a flower during their walk, which they took back to the lab where they learned to isolate the endophytes and plate them, just like scientists do. They then got to take their “pet” endophyte plate home and watch what happened over the course of a week or two. Check out Dr. Van Bael’s blog post and pictures to find out more.
The second workshop focused on coastal ecology and decision making. The activity is modeled after the state of Louisiana’s Master Plan for Coastal Protection and challenged the students to make their own “Kid Master Plan for Coastal Management.” They were split into groups of three, each acting as either a city planner, an engineer, or a marsh ecologist. The teams had to build their own Mississippi River Delta, including levees, out of Play-Doh, sand, sponges, rocks, and sticks they collected. They also had to decide where to place the city of New Orleans and Grand Isle to protect it in the event of sea level rise, river flooding, and a hurricane. Throughout each of the three challenges, the kids, acting in their roles as city planner, engineer, or marsh ecologist, discussed what they saw happening to their cities and how they might adjust their designs to protect them. In the end, the winning team was selected by one of the students acting as the governor. The curriculum for this workshop was developed by Dr. Van Bael, Dr. Emily Farrer, Dr. Kim Mighell, and Emma Tower. Contact Dr. Van Bael if you would like a copy of the activity.
Dr. Van Bael and her colleagues host similar workshops for elementary and middle school-aged kids each fall and spring. Her goal is to teach kids about the challenges facing the coasts and show them that all kinds of people are needed to help solve them. For more information about Dr. Van Bael’s research, and to follow along with her outreach activities, please visit her Lab Website here.