Lake Erie plays a big part in the lives of Ohio residents, from providing drinking water and seafood to creating memories of family vacations and weekend fishing trips. But for some, it can be difficult to see that connection without an experience that draws a specific link between the lake and their personal life.
Stone Lab, Ohio Sea Grant’s research, outreach and education facility on Gibraltar Island, aims to make that link more explicit through educational opportunities like field trips, college courses, research experiences and professional development workshops for fifth graders through adults. While the formats vary widely, Stone Lab education has one guiding principle: making sure a trip to the lab is a hands-on experience that leaves visitors with an appreciation for Lake Erie and the impact it has on their surroundings.
Connecting Students With Science
“A lot of times teachers are trying to find that real-world connection and I feel like Stone Lab really offers that,” said Jackie Conry, who teaches science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes at St. Mary Catholic School in Vermilion. Her fifth-graders not only participated in Stone Lab’s Lake Erie Science Field Trip Program, but also spent the school year leading up to their visit collecting weekly water samples from the Vermilion River and Lake Erie near their school. The samples were analyzed by Dr. Justin Chaffin, Stone Lab’s research coordinator, and then students from kindergarten through fifth grade used the data in their classes.
“We also tied different subject areas together, so it wasn’t just science,” Conry said. “It tied into reading and writing because students were doing research online, creating a PowerPoint presentation, really thinking about the entire process, so it was a multi-subject approach. And that’s what allowed us to continue it throughout the year.”
“The field trip really took a lot of knowledge that they learned in the classroom and allowed them to apply that in a real-world scenario.”
The field trip at the end of the school year also expanded the students’ understanding of what they had learned by showing them how their knowledge applied to the larger Lake Erie ecosystem and the researchers who work in it. Measuring wind speed and wave height, collecting and dissecting fish and identifying microscopic organisms in water samples they had collected all tied back to what the students had learned throughout the year.
“The field trip really took a lot of knowledge that they learned in the classroom and allowed them to apply that in a real-world scenario,” Conry explained. “And because we had spent the time talking about it throughout the year, they were knowledgeable, and for them to take what they learned in the classroom and use those skills in the real world, that was a great connection for them to see.”
Stone Lab’s summer college courses continue the tradition of hands-on education by immersing students in Lake Erie science, often quite literally. All classes include at least some field trips, where students go out in the field to collect samples and experience the ecosystems they’re studying first-hand.
“Stone Lab courses take all the components of being a working scientist and put them together into a one-, four- or six-week course,” said Dr. Christopher Winslow, Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab’s director. “We want our students to not only gain the knowledge they expect from the course they’re taking, but also to see how that knowledge applies to real-world ecosystems like the Lake Erie islands.”
Exceptional college students who want to get a closer look at how scientific research is done can also apply for Stone Lab’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Scholarship Program, which gives them a chance to work with professional scientists on a research project of their choosing. REU students present their findings in person and via a live webinar at the end of the term and may go on to author papers or present posters at scientific conferences.
“We’ve had 139 students go through the REU program since it started in 2005, and of those students, 32 gave conference presentations and eleven authored or co-authored peer-reviewed journal articles,” said Chaffin, who coordinates the REU program. Some of the students are also able to extend their research experience into some additional weeks of paid work, continuing to collect and analyze samples or performing experiments to expand their data sets during the rest of the summer.
Donors fund most of the REU program, covering tuition and room and meals for the students, many of whom couldn’t have had the experience without financial support. And for at least some of them, that summer research project started off a lifelong dedication to scientific research.
“That Stone Lab REU scholarship is immensely valuable to students like me – a first-generation college student without the means to pay for a Stone Lab education on my own,” said Kelsey Reider, a 2005 REU student who is now working on her PhD in ecology at Florida International University in Miami. She credits seeing working scientists doing what they love and making a difference – in this case, working with Stone Lab’s Dr. Kristin Stanford on the Lake Erie Watersnake recovery plan that removed the snakes from the threatened species list – with inspiring her to chase that same dream.
College classes aren’t the last chance people get to study at Stone Lab though. Sometimes, the best way to spread a love of science and nature is by bringing together a group of dedicated teachers, showing them all the cool science they can do in their own classrooms, and then sending them back out into the world to inspire the next generation.
Teacher professional development at Stone Lab does just that: three-day to one-week courses in geology, environmental education and educational technology provide educators with background and tools to take Lake Erie science back to their classrooms or informal education settings, and spending time with others who are excited about science education can have a huge impact on motivation and inspire participants to try some new things with their students.
“It was just an amazing week with amazin teachers. As soon as I got home, I thought ‘How can I use this in the classroom to make the students’ education more meaningful and more real?‘”
“It was just an amazing week with amazing teachers,” North Olmsted Middle School math teacher Shari Insley said of the week-long Water & Wildlife Training for Educators class she took at Stone Lab. “As soon as I got home, I thought, ‘How can I use this in the classroom to make the students’ education more meaningful and more real?’”
It turned out that connections made on Gibraltar Island helped Insley do just that. Together with Cleveland Metroparks naturalist Mark Warman, her lab partner during the course, she developed activities that allowed her students to monitor water quality in the Rocky River throughout the year.
“The students felt like real scientists, getting to use scientific equipment and apply what we’d been learning,” Insley said. “I am hoping that they can see the real-world application for math in different professions and that you need math to understand science. I’m hoping they are exposed to a variety of jobs that they never thought they could do.”
For those already working as real-life scientists (or getting ready to do so), Stone Lab also offers professional development workshops on algal identification, fish sampling and preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species. These workshops teach new agency personnel needed skills for fisheries work and water quality protection, and address current problems like harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Lake Erie by helping water treatment plant operators to identify HABs and remove any toxins from the water going through their facilities.
“A week after one of the workshops in 2014, one of the participants worked with Dr. Chaffin and correctly identified a harmful algal bloom in the reservoir at the Norwalk water plant and averted what could have been a serious problem,” said Dr. Jeff Reutter, Ohio Sea Grant’s former director. “Our hope is that other workshop students will be able to do the same for their facilities should the need arise.”
The fisheries workshops are just as relevant to making sure Lake Erie’s fisheries are healthy and thriving. Students get hands-on experience deploying sampling equipment like nets and electrofishing gear, and work closely with actual agency staff while learning how to catch fish and collect real-world data used to manage fisheries in most of the Great Lakes.
“These are professional-type experiences that college students don’t get from the classroom,” said Eugene Braig, program director of aquatic ecosystems extension in The Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, who teaches Fish-Sampling Techniques along with scientists from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “The workshop was very deliberately developed to provide students with marketable skills so they would be much more competitive for those entry level positions as technicians and interns.”
And once they’ve been to Stone Lab, most people tend to not only come back, but will also tell others about the experience, sowing the seeds for the next crop of field trip kids, college students and professionals who gain a new appreciation of Lake Erie and its importance to their world.