Spooky Science and Girl Scout Expo!

As the winter chill is setting in around Lawrence, a few annual outreach events have come and gone. As co-chairs of the Graduate Student Organization (GSO) Outreach Committee this year, I try to participate in as many events as possible. And of course, it is hard to pass up the chance to talk to folks about jellies.

Macabre at the Museum is an annual KU Natural History Museum event held every October around Halloween, where students share some of the spookier sides of their scientific work with the public. I participated last year with lab mate Sally (now Dr. Chang!), showing off the variety of toxins within jellyfish venoms and the different syndromes they can cause when stinging humans. Sally was talking about cnidarian parasites called myxozoans and the horrible fish diseases they can cause.

This year, in the hustle and bustle being a graduate student, I admittedly did not prepare as much as I would have liked. But I was able to get together some of my own polyps from home and a few starlet sea anemones, called Nematostella, for folks to see. I brought a few sea monkeys or brine shrimp (i.e. Artemia) for feeding as well. I also brought a few jellyfish books to show off.

Talking about blue buttons being eaten by sea slugs, which take all their stinging cells! Some nasty thievery, perfect for Macabre at the KU Natural History Museum!

I also brought, as a separate activity, a National Center for Science Education (NCSE) activity on rising tides. This involves building a beach in an aluminum tray with sand and some water, and then having the participant try building a structure to protect their home (a monopoly house) using various types of materials (sponges, pipe cleaners, toothpicks, etc). Then I try and flood the house with more water. But all these materials come at a cost, so you have to be very economic with the choice. Usually the sand and water attracted kids that wanted to play in the sand, so to get them to really try the activity I told them pick three or four structure to use to protect their house.

But, being underprepared, I did not get enough water before the event started. I also had kinetic sand instead of regular sand, since I figured it would be better for long term storage and cleanup. Sometimes I was able to get more water from a fountain down the hall when kids were building their structures, but usually I had someone else coming up to look at the jellies I had out. So, I usually just resorted to trying to flood the house by tipping the tray. And often the kinetic sand would keep the house in place even if I got the water to flood the beach.

So what do you do when the activity does not quite work well? Know why you are doing the activity and do your best to get the message across. For instance, the sponges in this activity are meant to act like natural buffers, such as wetlands, that efficiently protect you’re the home.  And when a kid’s house did not fall, I was happy! They protected their house! I just made sure to point out all the work they had to do in order to keep it there.

I had a similar issue with an activity two years ago as a sustainability intern with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. We designed a sea turtle activity where rolling dice was required to get to the next life stage (egg to hatchling). However, the kids participating in this activity were rolling well and usually “survived” as a young turtle. Lesson learned that new activities do not always go as planned, but there is usually not time to adjust during an event, especially the sea turtle event. Instead, I reminded the participants that while it may have been easy in the activity, many sea turtles are not so lucky and have even more hardships (i.e. have to “role more dice”) to become adults.

The jellies also did not cooperate, basically meaning they did not want to eat. And that is usually the most fun part for folks that have not seen live jellies up close. But overall people just enjoy seeing these animals be their gelatinous selves, and I was happy to answer any questions about them.

Since many of us were on the upper floor, we did not have as many visitors. But I found that, compared to last year, there were many more KU students as opposed to families. Given that I have not been a teaching assistant yet, I do not get a chance to interact with many students aside from the Women in STEMM mentoring group and some of the students in my lab. In some ways I find undergraduate students harder to engage with in outreach work because they are not always eager to engage with the materials, let alone a graduate student that is closer to their age.  Lucky for me, there were plenty of students that come in groups asking questions and even trying the rising tides activity despite it being clear that there were some flaws with the execution.

Overall, I talked to 20-25 people and enjoyed the event, though hopefully next year I will be a little more prepared. Maybe even with a few full-grown jellies for folks to see.

The next event is one that had been in the works for a few months: the Girl Scout STEM Expo at Camp Tongawood. This event had been designed and organized by two graduate students last year, Kaila Colyott and Andrew Mongue, was a major success with the girl scouts that attended, even earning the GSO a Community Partners award with the GS NW Kansas and NE Missouri (GSKSMO)! When the Director of Outdoor Experience for GSKSMO Geoff Gleason and Outdoor Experience Manager M.C. Rose approached us about repeating the event, I was quick to take on a role as one of the organizers for this year.

The collaboration was split between the logistics of getting the site, finding a date, and arranging registration for the troops by the Outdoor Team end and getting modules together, creating the schedule, and helping the Outdoor team with day-of preparations by the GSO. Some of the major changes from last year: rotating between four modules instead of three, increasing the module diversity, and having troops rank modules to make scheduling easier (in theory).

Sign in the day of on a cold morning!
Each module had a take home sheet called a “Continuing the Conversation” sheet, with resources and information about each activity and how to learn more!

Overall, we were able to expand the number of modules from five to nine, including three completely new modules developed by new graduate students in EEB and a STEM archery activity.

Instead of the Meet a Marine Biologist module, which is my bread and butter for girl scout events, I developed a new module with my co-chair and office mate Amanda Katzer: Women in STEMM. More specifically, women in biology. Our goal was to help girls learn the names of a few prominent women scientists that made major contributions to various scientific fields. For a 45-minute module, our goal was to set up activities covering three major themes: naming species, food webs disturbances, and isolating DNA. For each of those activities, we also talked about female scientists that contributed to the field. Our hope is in the future that different module leaders can incorporate their own 15-minute activities to build their own full module.

To start, I asked the girls to name a scientist. The most common were Einstein and Neil deGrasse Tyson. When I asked about female scientists, some said Marie Curie but generally there was no response. The goal was to give them a few names to remember.

For the naming species activity, we had a variety of specimens from a biology teaching collection as well as flowers and mushrooms from the grocery store laid out on a table. We created a “Describing a Species” sheet for each of the girls to write down observations about what features distinguish a particular organism from the others on the table, or what makes them the same. I used a panel of butterflies as an example; different colors, wing shapes, and sizes might help distinguish each as a species, but likewise having wings, antennae, and three-part body plan, and a distinctive shape also helps distinguish all of these specimens as butterflies. The girls loved looking at all the specimens, and we could have spent all 45 minutes at the table answering questions. Some of the scientists we mentioned were Margaret Louisa Bolus (1877-1970), who described 1,494 land plants, and Phoebe Snetsinger (1931-1999), who observed over 8,000 different birds in just the last few decades of her life. Overall, not much writing but a lot of curiosity!

Describe a species
During the describe a species activity, Amanda and I had troops look at a variety of specimens to try and figure out what features make each specimen distinct.

For the food web activity, we were even more interactive. Each of the girls was given an organism, up to 10 different animals, and we started going through who eats who. For each interaction, we held a piece of sting in between each person. Admittedly, we probably should have cut the string beforehand… but it was a funny interlude throughout the web building. Once we had the web, we talked about pesticides, specifically DDT, and watched as our complex and interwoven food web broke down piece by piece, leaving decomposers and plants. From here we introduced Rachel Carson (1907-1964), “Silent Spring,” which talked about the dangers of DDT on the environment, arguably the most famous of her many pieces.

The final activity was one that Amanda and I had done before – isolating DNA from spit in a tube. First, I made sure that everyone knew what DNA was, or at least had the general concept. I showed them a picture of Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) and the famous photo 51, which shows an X-ray diffraction image of crystallized DNA. There are of course plenty of famous female geneticists: Barbara McClintock (1902-1992), Ruth Sager (1918-1997), Nettie Stevens (1861-1912), and many more. But this is a name I felt confident they would encounter again in school, and I wanted to get the name in their head. While the girls isolated their own DNA, we asked them, now that we can easily isolate and look at DNA, what we can do with it, such as describing species relationships and new species, understanding diseases, and how we obtain certain traits.

Overall, I think for a first run the module went really well. My hope is that we were able to show off some major concepts in science as well as name a few prominent scientists. In total, between all the different modules, over 60 Girl scouts got to learn about fungi, plant fossils and plant pollinators, birding, sea turtles, marine creatures, and model organisms. It seems like all the graduate students enjoyed the event, and all the troop and camp leaders I spoke to were delighted by the event.

With the Expo complete, here is looking to next year!

That a good looking group! So glad to be part of such an active GSO!

Check out some of the others awesome outreach my department’s GSO takes part in at our website. And if you want to learn more about some important women in STEM, check out “Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World”written and illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky.

By the way, 3 November was World Jellyfish Day! So, I spent the rest of the day cleaning my jellies at home.

Look how cute they are!

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