Twenty-four pairs of eyes are upon me. These eyes, these critical eyes, belong to 12-year-olds. Twelve-year-olds who expect this real-life scientist standing in front of them to teach them about ocean acidification (OA). They’ve had no chemistry and I’ve never taught middle-schoolers. Do they know about pH? What makes an acid? Calcium carbonate? No? I’ve got 50 minutes? Deep-breath. Okay. Go!
Over two days last week I taught OA to 200 7th graders at the Rupert Nock Middle School in Newburyport, Massachusetts. We tested household solutions (e.g., milk, lemon, spit) with pH strips. We learned how added CO2 lowers pH. We learned about chemistry through role playing as elements and compounds. We learned how the loneliness of H+ ions (lonely ions like to bond) make them highly reactive and how that loneliness can steal the bricks (carbonate) needed to build the shells of marine organisms (Thanks to science teacher John Reynolds for a wonderful Home Depot metaphor that I will blatantly steal). We developed hypotheses about the consequences for marine life and conducted a multi-day experiment on the effects of an acid (dilute vinegar) on mass loss of bivalve shells.
While OA is not a current focus of the TIDE Project, it is a major concern for marine ecosystems. Outreach is a supporting pillar of the TIDE Project’s scientific philosophy (as well as the larger group of Plum Island-LTER scientists) and one goal is to strengthen coastal education by working with young scientists and K-12 students.
My classroom demonstrations also emphasize the important presence the TIDE Project has in the communities local to the marshes we study. The OA module germinated from a conversation I had when John Reynolds brought a dozen of his students to the marsh as part of his outdoor curriculum.
From middle-school students peering through refractometers while standing on the marsh to undergraduates publishing papers, the TIDE Project has engaged at over 1000 middle-school, high-school, undergraduate, and graduate students combined through its outreach activities. Whether standing at a white board or knee-deep in marsh mud, we hope to engage thousands more.
David Samuel Johnson is a principal investigator on the TIDE Project. He is particularly fond of invertebrates. All photos courtesy of Lisa Furlong.