Connecting K-12 to UWL Caribbean research

Image of a person scuba diving and giving a thumbs up.

Through a National Science Foundation grant, UWL faculty partnered with K-12 teachers and their students to share UWL research on the cutting edge of marine biology.

Video connection to UWL bioluminescent ostracod research aimed to educate, inspire

UW-La Crosse faculty hope a virtual connection to the Caribbean Sea this January may have inspired some area students to pursue futures in science — not because of the hot weather but because of the cool research.

Through a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Teachers grant, UWL Biology Department faculty members Gretchen Gerrish and Megan Litster took five K-12 teachers to Belize Jan. 18 – 27 to study bioluminescent ostracods in the Caribbean Sea. These teachers then shared their experiences and data with students back home via Skype.

Megan Litster

“If we can expose students (in grades 6-12) to authentic research earlier than in undergraduate or graduate school, we can capture their interest and perhaps have them continue on to scientific careers,” explains Litster, an assistant professor of biology. “Exposing students to how scientists think gives students the opportunity to continue developing their own critical thinking skills.” 

The grant places teachers who may not have already done scientific research into situations that bring science to life, explains Litster.

Gerrish has been traveling to Belize to study shrimp-like crustaceans — called marine ostracods — that live in the shallow waters of the Caribbean Sea since she was a doctoral student about 18 years ago. These tiny creatures create amazing light displays in the dark water to attract mates. Gerrish studies how bioluminescent ostracods use lights for both defense and courtship displays. Since 2014, her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation.

Gretchen Gerrish

In addition to bringing her research to the K-12 community, Gerrish has found many ways to share her research experiences at UWL. To date, she has brought 57 UWL undergraduates to Belize to see the ostracod light show and to conduct research in the marine habitat. She has also built numerous interdepartmental collaborations with faculty in the Biology, Chemistry and Geography and Earth Science departments.

Litster says partnering with K-12 education on this project was a natural fit as she is a School of Education-affiliated faculty member who works with teachers regularly. “Collaborating on the grant was a way to give back to those teachers who have given to UWL’s program,” she explains.

The K-12 students who participated in the Caribbean research project had a hand in designing the research their teachers performed while in the field, explains Litster.

The students developed a number of questions for the researchers to explore such as “How do marine ostracods fare in freshwater?” and “How does artificial light, such as light pollution from cities, affect courtship behaviors?”

When the teachers where Skyping back with their students, they had even more questions and data they wanted to analyze.  

Maggie Gapinski, a high school teacher from Rufus King, prepares to photograph the super blood wolf moon lunar eclipse to test how light level influences bioluminescent behaviors.

“Getting them excited about science and all the creativity and critical thinking that go into getting an answer to a previously unanswered question is really exciting for us,” says Litster.

The teachers and students participating were from Rufus King High School in Milwaukee, La Crosse Design Institute and 7 Rivers Community High School. Some K-12 teachers from these schools had connections to UW-La Crosse. Katy Weber and Maggie McHugh, both teachers from the LaCrosse Design Institute, are both graduates of UWL’s School of Education.  Andy Hartman, a teacher at 7Rivers High School, is also a UWL graduate.

Check out this story in the La Crosse Tribune.

Want to see the Ostracods in action?

Gretchen Gerrish’s ostracod research is featured in the documentary “Light on Earth,” which began streaming on Curiosity Stream, a site custom built for streaming documentaries, in spring 2016. It was also featured in the BBC version “Life That Glows.” 

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1457439.”