Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Unleashing Students' Inner Scientists
This recent New York Times article truly got my attention. You will enjoy it as well, I'm sure!
“Be careful!” shouted a seventh grader from Coney Island’s Mark Twain Intermediate School 239 for the Gifted and Talented.
“Don’t grab him by the tail,” warned another.
“I think he’s scared,” said a third.
The students were gathered around a red-backed salamander deep in the woods on Staten Island. A shiny black squiggle, it was jumping around in the cupped hands of their teacher, Aimee Kemp, who was determined to show them how she could tell it was a male.
New York City used to be salamander central, but while the red-backed salamander still thrives under rocks and logs, other species have disappeared.
The tiger salamander was gone by the 1930s, the marbled salamander by the 1970s. The four-toed salamander was last spotted in 1979. These days, the northern dusky salamander is found in only one location in Manhattan, Highbridge Park in Upper Manhattan, while the spotted and northern red salamanders are considered rare.
Concern about their decline in the area is not merely academic. Salamanders help protect woodlands by eating the bugs and grubs that consume leaf litter, which provides a habitat as well as crucial nutrients and moisture for wildlife and young plants. Highly sensitive to changes in the environment, salamanders are also important indicators of overall forest condition.
So in an ambitious citizen-science project, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation has enlisted scores of seventh graders from public and private schools to study salamanders in the wild — or what passes for the wild in New York.
On a crisp fall day, five large groups of students fanned out to parks in four boroughs, with the group led by Ms. Kemp heading to High Rock Park in Staten Island’s Greenbelt. They outlined 100-square-meter transects, or sections of land, and recorded each salamander: its species, size and cover object (logs, rocks or leaf litter). They also noted other amphibians, like frogs, as well as insects, spiders and earthworms.
Despite their recent vulnerability, salamanders make ideal research subjects for children, in part because they are easy to find. “People don’t take them seriously because they’re small, cute and kind of common,” said Ellen Pehek, the parks department’s principal research ecologist. “But their commonness is precisely why we study them.
“They actually have a big impact on forest ecology. They are so numerous that they can regulate the population of invertebrates they eat. They respond to a lot of things that happen in a forest, like pollutants or erosion or restoration. It doesn’t take 10 years to see a response.”
The same students also went on a field trip to Black Rock Forest in the Hudson Highlands, 50 miles north of the city, in September to document salamanders there.
In addition to the red-backed salamander, Ms. Kemp’s students uncovered the eastern newt, while other school groups found salamanders of the slimy, northern two-lined, northern red and four-toed species. The groups will now return to the classroom and enter their data on computers, giving the city’s scientists fresh comparisons between urban salamanders and their country cousins.
The data will feed into continuing research that Dr. Pehek and others have done on salamanders in newly restored woodland areas in Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan.
There, from 2001 to 2003, the parks department removed invasive plant species like vines and honeysuckle bushes. Researchers found that, at first, bigger, feistier salamanders retreated to untouched sections of forest, claiming that territory for themselves.
The smaller, more defenseless salamanders remained in the newly restored area, but over time, the larger ones returned to join them. That meant the salamanders were able to overcome the initial disruption of the restoration, which will ultimately improve their habitat.
Ms. Kemp’s 45 students, from Mark Twain I.S. 239, found only the most common salamander, the eastern red-backed, on the trip to Staten Island. Nonetheless, a squeal went up each time they located another specimen. “I like the feeling of how they move,” said Sean Seneviratne, 12. “Their bodies are really flexible, and when you feel their spine, it makes you think about what they have that you don’t and what you have that they don’t.”
Ms. Kemp, 23, graduated from Columbia University with a degree in environmental biology. For her senior research thesis, she studied the impact of invasive plant species and earthworms on salamanders at Black Rock Forest, so she knows firsthand the importance of getting budding scientists into the field.
“You can do labs all day in the classroom, but it’s not the same as getting out there and seeing how research actually happens,” she said. “It reinforces the scientific method.”
For some students, like Savanah Hernandez, the excursions provided more than a first contact with salamanders; the trip to Black Rock Forest was her inaugural visit to the woods. Sarah Aucoin, director of the parks department’s Urban Park Rangers, said she was struck by the students’ receptiveness.
“For many of the students, it was their first time looking under a rock,” she said. “I walked up on plenty of children with millipedes crawling on their arms. Young people have a natural affinity for nature, particularly for wildlife. People learn to become squeamish. But if we can get them out there early enough and turn that curiosity into scientific inquiry, then we’re getting them on the right path.”
In addition to documenting salamanders and insects, the educators asked the students to measure the depth of the leaf litter and to estimate the size of the tree canopy overhead: was more than half of the sky covered by trees and branches or less than half?
The students also learned about the different colorations of the red-backed salamander. As might be expected from the name, most have a red stripe down their backs, but some do not, and those without the stripe are better able to tolerate dry conditions and heat.
The big idea that Ms. Aucoin hoped the students would take away is the “web of life” and how even things like downed trees and leaf litter — not to mention salamanders and insects — enhance that web. That message seemed to get across to Melanie Smith, 11, an aspiring marine biologist who found a red-backed salamander (with stripe) under a log.
“Each animal has a job,” she said as she walked back through fallen leaves to a waiting bus. “It’s like a little community."