The sole purpose: Inspiring future NOAA scientists

  • July 19, 2012

By Sara Bruestle

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with the help of local teachers, is bringing real science to the classroom.

Teacher Amanda Cope and teacher-to-be Elizabeth Gutierrez worked in the genetics lab at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s Mukilteo Field Station for three weeks, from June 25-July 30, as part of the NOAA Teacher in the Lab program.

Teacher in the Lab is an expansion of the NOAA Teacher at Sea program, which establishes a partnership between teachers and NOAA to inspire students to become their next generation of scientists.

“I can go back and tell my kids what’s going on with real scientists,” said Cope, who is a biologist teacher at Leaders in Learning, Monroe’s alternate high school. “They really feel removed from real-world science.

“They get the ‘Well, we used to study this,’ so for them to know this is actively going on and we still don’t know, that’s huge.”

NOAA fisheries geneticist Gary Winans and Mariner High School biology teacher Jon Baker hosted the two as they experienced NOAA science first-hand by assisting in NOAA’s research on the genetic variations of English sole in the Puget Sound.

“Some programs focus on students, but we think that teachers are the best ambassadors for science and the Salish Sea,” Baker said. “Money is better spent making teachers better and more knowledgeable, and to give them ownership.

“Once you train them, they’ll carry the message for 20 years.”

The teachers learned the techniques NOAA uses to extract, copy, target and then analyze a series of genes to see the DNA differences of English sole populations from all over the Puget Sound and at Grace Harbor.

“We don’t know anything about the genetics of English sole, and so we have an opportunity to begin a baseline genetic population study of these guys,” Baker said. “We thought it would be great to also use the Teacher in the Lab group to work on this project.”

The research is for the Salish Sea DNA Project, which is a study of the variability of lesser-known species in the Salish Sea, such as jellyfish, eelgrass – or English sole.

“We know a lot about salmonids, killer whales, rock fish, but we don’t know a lot about the key organisms that are a part of the ecosystem of the Salish Sea,” Winans said.

“As climate changes happen, and as pollution happens, we want to know what their responses are to these environmental challenges.”

NOAA is collecting DNA data to track the differences or diversity of the wild English sole populations. Already, NOAA has mapped the genomes of 14 English sole populations, with the help of local teachers.

Cope and Gutierrez produced and analyzed the DNA data of 600 English sole using a tiny clip of their fins. They were required to keep records on each of them.

They both said they had a lot of fun in the lab.  They loved getting the opportunity to do “micro” and “macro” research – to go from studying an English sole’s DNA to what it means for the English sole population.

“When I explain to my kids what we’re doing, I can explain my experiences, which is a major hook for them,” Cope said. “I can explain, ‘I’ve done this, and if I can do it, you can do it.’”

They are now working with NOAA and other teachers to figure out how to take what they’ve learned in the lab to the classroom.

Baker has developed a curriculum that includes lessons on the basics of English sole, its biology and ecology, conservation biology, the lab work and interpretation of the data.

“This project brings the real world to the classroom, which is one of the most important things you can do,” Baker said. “The kids were fascinated.

“I had kids say ‘This is real!’ and ‘I love doing real science!’ Sometimes we take it for granted that it’s so powerful to them.”

The hope is that students will be working on the Salish Sea DNA Project – doing real science – by 2013.

“I believe in this program because, the students they’re talking about, I was one a very short time ago,” said Gutierrez, a microbiology student at California State University, East Bay. “I craved exactly what this program offers, and I didn’t get it until college.”

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