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News and events

News & events

Sutherland Elementary School students get first-hand science experience

May 23, 2016

VCU’s Graduate Organization of Biology Students (GOBS) organized an outreach event on April 8 at Sutherland Elementary School. Six graduate students installed mesocosms (large experiment tanks) to mimic vernal pools in order to teach the third grade students about ecosystems and scientific measurements. 

Graduate students Kennesha Bragg, Abigail Nelson, Joseph Morina, Andrew Kirk, April Harris, and Logan McDonald dug three mesocosms into place at the school. Small sticks from the surrounding area were placed in the mesocosms to encourage insects to perch, mate, and lay eggs.  Since students will measure the increase in the water depth from week to week as part of the project, the mesocosms were not filled.  And just in case the water levels fall low, rocks and sticks were placed in the mesocosms as an exit route for any amphibians that may need help escaping.

Five third grade classes, or approximately 100 students, heard a short presentation to give the students background information on mesocosm communities and explain the importance of vernal pools.  They learned what a mesocosm is, what they might find, and what their responsibilities will be for the project; they also got a chance to see spotted salamanders brought in by the graduate students. 

The classes were taken outside to view the mesocosms and given a brief demonstration on data collection.  Data will be collected weekly for a 7-week period, and the teachers then will help their students graph the data and compare the findings between classes. Students will sequence natural events chronologically, and classify species with similar characteristics into sets and subsets. The data they will collect will include water depth (measure of precipitation), water temperature, and biodiversity.

In addition, the graduate students constructed a field guide for students to use to identify species that may be present in the Dinwiddie area.

All of the graduate students involved are researchers at the Rice Rivers Center, with a diverse range of research from population ecology to microbial ecology. And while their research is vital to their work, they heartily support the Rice Rivers Center mission to promote outreach for environmental stewardship and education.

The goal of the event was to encourage the next generation of scientists to get started early and show them that opportunities for science are just outside the door.  “This was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had as a graduate student,” said Bragg.

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