Community and Education news

8 May 2019

Cawthron and University of Otago specialist educators inspiring hundreds of budding environmental scientists during ‘real world’ laboratory workshops

More than 100 Year 13 biology students from secondary schools in Nelson Tasman and Marlborough are finding out about the science that lies behind our successful aquaculture industry.

Students are swapping the classroom for lab coats and gumboots at Cawthron Institute’s Aquaculture Park to participate in two days of laboratory-based workshops guided by specialist educators from Cawthron and the University of Otago.

The annual science workshops, which started on Monday 29 April and run through until 17 May, are delivered by Cawthron Institute in collaboration with NMIT, SpatNZ and University of Otago, and are designed to give students access to state-of-the-art laboratory facilities to carry out experiments with mussels.

Alice McCullough, who took part in the very first workshops eight years ago says they were a major influence on what she is doing now.

“The workshops were the first time I really got to think for myself in a real-world laboratory environment,” says Alice. “I had to use my knowledge and apply it to a real problem. The experience was cool and I liked the idea of doing my own research.”

Since leaving school, Alice has completed a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Marine Science and will shortly start her Masters degree, where she will study sponges. Alice was also one of Cawthron’s summer scholars and spent ten weeks looking at the use of algae as feed in the aquaculture industry.

NZ Marine Studies Centre University of Otago Educator, Richard de Hamel, says students lead their own experiments and for many it’s the first time that they are faced with the challenge of overcoming science challenges.

“We provide students with an experience in the laboratory like those they will experience in the real world of science.

“On the first day they visit the SpatNZ premises and learn how the spat breeding programme works. Students get to see how mussels are selectively bred for industry, in the same way as the farming sector selectively breeds sheep or cattle. The baby mussels – or spat – are produced in a hatchery which reduces variability in supply and performance.

“This example of research making a positive difference to industry success is inspirational for students who then refine their questions and get to work with their experiments. They change one or more variables, like temperature, salinity, or chemicals in the water, and measure the response of the mussel. On the second day the students tell us what they found out and how their experiments went.”

The Year 13 workshops are embraced by students who find the research process exciting. Jess Alloway and Roz Walker, from Nelson College for Girls, were looking at the effect of different concentrations of adrenalin on mussel heart rate.

“We can’t access this in a school environment so it's been fantastic to be able to come here and talk to scientists and work in a laboratory,” says Jess. “Even the process of working out what experiment we can do due to biosecurity and health risks was interesting.

“Today we saw mucus drifting, which we had read about. It was so exciting to see this taking place under the microscope in front of us. It’s real science, and it’s exciting to think about how new research might be discovered because of something we discover here.”

“For the past 100 years the Cawthron Institute has actively engaged with its local community to provide science education opportunities,” says Elizabeth Bean from Cawthron. “It supports PhD students through internships, sponsors young students, provides scholarships to university students, delivers public science lectures, and runs the annual Scitec Expo (Science Fair) for primary and secondary students.”