Armed with magnifying lenses, Petri dishes, insect vials, and field guides, the youngsters traipse into the UConn forest to examine the biodiversity of a rotting log.
“We want to see how many different species we can find,” says Cheri Collins, one of the leaders of a new biodiversity module offered through the Kids are Scientists Too (K.A.S.T.) summer program.
On this day, the children learn how the variety of species in the log, including invertebrates, fungi, and microbes, break down organic debris into nutrient-laden compost that enriches the soil.
“We discuss how the biodiversity in the log contributes to the health of the forest,” Collins says.
The weeklong field program, Amazing Biodiversity, was sponsored by the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, the Center for Conservation and Biodiversity, and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
The program is for children in grades five through 10. The K.A.S.T. program includes modules on archaeology, chemistry, engineering, and marine science.
Adding a module on biodiversity to the K.A.S.T. program made sense, says Collins, program and collection manager at the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and Connecticut Archaeology Center.
“It’s a hot topic,” she says.
“Most people have heard of the concept of biodiversity – often in the context of faraway places like the rainforests of Costa Rica. But we wanted to bring the concept of biodiversity closer to home. It’s not just about tropical snakes. It’s about the vast number of species of living and nonliving things that make up ecosystems that exist right in the kids’ backyards, and even on their own bodies.”
Collins says one of the goals of the module is to help youngsters understand how the health of their environment promotes and maintaines their personal health through biodiversity.
On another day, the group looked into the biodiversity within the ecology and evolutionary biology department’s research collections. They learned how to preserve and record plant specimens and toured the collections, which include insects and invertebrates, parasites, fish, and birds.
Another morning’s activity included investigating the variety of organisms found on their own bodies, with the help of a microscope.
“There are six tribes of beneficial bacteria on our inner elbows,” says Chuck Smith, an assistant professor-in-residence of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Our bodies have a lot of biodiversity.”
| Chuck Smith, an assistant professor-in-residence of ecology and evolutionary biology, discusses a specimen with 10-year-old Ethan, during a new module on biodiversity, part of the Kids Are Scientists Too program.
|Photo by Sean Flynn
A magnified critter fills a screen in front of the room.
“What do you think this is?” Smith asks the youngsters. “They’re crawling on me right now.”
The children respond with a resounding, “Ewwwwwww.”
It’s an eyelash mite, and Smith explains how and why it lives on the body. After examining spiders and mosquitoes under the microscope, the children are eager to look at their own cheek cells.
Smith teaches them how to scrape cells from the inside of their cheek, and prepare slides for observation under the microscope.
Drops of stain are added carefully.
Everyone agrees that the stain makes the cells look like blue potato chips. Twelve-year-old Lexi studies her cheek cells under the microscope.
“The little green specks are mitochondria,” Smith explains.
“I don’t see any black dots which are bacteria, so you must have brushed well this morning.”
Ethan, 10, takes a look at Lexi’s specimen. “That’s amazing,” he says.
Twelve-year-old Margo checks it out as well. “I see the nucleus,” she says.
Later in the morning the group visit the Electron Microscopy Laboratory in the physiology and neurobiology department, where they see tapeworms and head lice magnified some 200,000 times by an electron microscope.
Margo says one of her favorite parts of the program was examining pickled amphibians.
“They’re disgustingly cool,” she says.