Courtesy of Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant

From onboard the EPA ship the Lake Guardian stationed in the Grate Lakes, aquatic researcher Susan Daniel took a break from her research to share how she became a scientist with students onshore

“I was 19 years old. I never even knew any of this stuff existed," said Susan Daniel, a Buffalo State College researcher who studies invertebrates that live at the bottom of the Great Lakes over a video cast. "I didn’t know I could be a scientist. I thought that was something way beyond what I could be.”

Daniel was talking to students from Ellis Middle School in Elgin, Ill., who posed questions for her and other scientists as part of a virtual session that brought the two groups together. Students in Holly Yee’s science classes had been studying the Great Lakes and the scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency, universities and the Sea Grant program answered their questions as part of the Scientists to Students program.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, IISG, developed Scientists to Students to connect students with Great Lakes scientists on board the EPA research ship, the Lake Guardian, via videocasts. While out on the lakes collecting samples, scientists visit classrooms virtually and talk with students about aquatic science, water quality monitoring, careers, and life on a ship. Since the program’s inception, more than 25 scientists, 33 teachers, and 3,400 students have participated.

This spring, due to COVID-19, IISG’s Kristin TePas and Allison Neubauer refashioned the Scientists to Students get-togethers with everyone working in their homes.

“This has resulted in a fair amount of trial and error to find processes and platforms that work well,” said Neubauer, IISG Great Lakes outreach associate. “As it turns out, I think this has been beneficial in encouraging participation from different types of learners, ranging from those who feel comfortable unmuting themselves and directly asking the scientists questions to those who would prefer to type in a chat box.”

The interactions with scientists and the Elgin students included prerecorded videos created when convenient - introductory videos from scientists describing their work, students posing questions, and scientists’ recorded answers. Many of the questions focused on Great Lakes conditions and issues, but some were more personal in nature, such as what is your favorite thing about being a scientist?

“Quite a few of my students expressed how much they learned by having these virtual conversations with the scientists and that it sparked their interest to want to explore the Great Lakes with their families,” said Yee.

In Mishawaka, Indiana, John Gensic’s high schoolers were learning about genetically modified organisms and biotechnology, including farm-raised GMO salmon, so TePas and Neubauer recruited Sea Grant specialists in Great Lakes fisheries and aquaculture to answer questions.

They organized two live sessions to give students more opportunity to take part. And while these sessions included real-time interactions, they also allowed for submitting questions after the fact.

“This opportunity actually was better via remote learning because many classes of students could participate at once, and they weren’t missing another class to join this call,” said Gensic. “It helped students see potential careers and helped students meet people who actually worked in the places we had previously read about. The experience also helped me grow in my understanding as a teacher to make more relevant lessons in the future.”

The third session was with Benita Cataldo’s high school biology students in Waterton, New York, and this time the students posed questions in the chat space in real time.

Many of the educators that bring these videochat sessions to their students have also taken part in other Sea Grant opportunities to enhance aquatic science and Great Lakes education in their classrooms. In fact, they likely spent some time on the Lake Guardian themselves.

Every summer, the Center for Great Lakes Literacy, a consortium of seven Sea Grant programs, conducts a weeklong Shipboard Science workshop where about 15 educators work side-by-side with scientists on the EPA ship. Teachers explore aquatic sciences and learn about resources that help them bring Great Lakes and ocean literacy activities to their classrooms and they build networks with educators and scientists. The 2020 Lake Michigan workshop was canceled due to COVID-19.

Most of the focus of Scientists to Students and the Shipboard Science Workshop has been on the opportunities they bring to educators and, of course, their students. Educators have described organizing field trips, incorporating new curricula, and bringing real-world Great Lakes issues to the classroom. Students’ eyes may also be opened to new career possibilities.

But the benefits go both ways.

“When these students come and ask good questions and really remind you what you’re doing is important, it lights that fire in your belly for a couple more months — to really have that drive to do research, and do it well,” said Daniel.

WRITER: Irene Miles, Strategic Communication Coordinator, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant

ABOUT ILLINOIS-INDIANA SEA GRANT: One of 34 Sea Grant Programs in the U.S., IISG is focused on the southern Lake Michigan region. The program is funded through National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of Illinois and Purdue University, but IISG also works in partnerships with scientists, educators, policy makers, business leaders, and the public to work towards a healthy environment and economy.

ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.