On New College’s marine science research boat, a dozen kids are a few hundred yards off the Bayfront. They’re conducting water sampling experiments under the guidance of marine biology thesis student Lukas Heath.
They are among the 31 students in PUSH/SUCCESS, a program created and run by Professor of Biology Sandra Gilchrist, now in its 15th year. The program, supported by grants and donors, brings in middle- and high-school students from demographics under-represented in science to teach science concepts, lab techniques, report writing and presentation skills.
One goal of PUSH/SUCCESS is to encourage students to consider careers in medicine and health science, by showing the links between the environment and the community; the program’s title this year is “How the Health of Sarasota Bay Affects the Health of Its Citizens.”
And now Simeon, Zaire and Jonah step to the front of the boat, inches from the bay itself, where Heath instructs them in how to use a probe to measure water characteristics. They lower the probe into roughly eight feet of water, and Zaire calls out the readings to Jonah, who is taking notes.
“Temperature, 27.7 degrees Celsius … dissolved oxygen, 6.48 milligrams per liter.”
A few minutes earlier, Heath had called out to the group for a volunteer. Aaron, a sixth-grader from St. Petersburg, leaped to his feet, and soon was unreeling a long bag of netting, collecting plankton from the bay.
Aaron wants to be a doctor or an EMT, and likes chemistry. He also liked how the bag filled out as the boat ran slowly in reverse. Told that that tomorrow he’d be looking at that same plankton under a microscope, his eyes grew large and he smiled.
And so the next day they do exactly that. The kids gather in groups of two or three at the biology lab’s dissecting microscopes, focusing on petri dishes of water teeming with plankton and sketching what they see.
“I can see little legs, antennae and the eyeball,” says Natalie, 11, who is headed to Hale Middle School in Bradenton in the fall.
Across the lab table from her, Paco, 17, is doing the same. “You can zoom in and see their organs.” His sketch is particularly detailed, using curved lines to convey a cylindrical body, and noting what appear to be internal features. He hypothesizes as he looks.
“Do they have a brain? I’m noting a dark spot near their head,” he said. “There’s something there, in the middle. I suppose that’s what they use to digest things.” He finishes up his sketch and looks up. “There’s a lot of questions we need to ask, like what do they eat? How can a multicellular organism be the size of a single cell?”
He steps up to speak with Dr. Gilchrist. What he’s seeing is the creature’s single eyespot, which essentially just detects the presence of light. And yes, there is a brain – “It’s mostly hard-wired toward survival,” observes Toby, another student in the program.
Their experience goes far beyond the lab, though. Over the course of the two-week program, the students will also analyze local beach sand for microplastics, plant vegetation to support butterflies and repel mosquitoes, examine the role of invertebrates in seagrass meadows, make sculptures from items found in beach cleanups, and make and operate underwater robots, among other activities.
They’ll present what they have learned in a graduation ceremony in the College Hall Music Room on June 23. Odds are good, as Gilchrist notes, that it all starts with the inquisitiveness that kids like Paco and Aaron demonstrated.
“We are trying to stimulate curiosity and higher-order thinking skills related to science,” she said. “There are many qualities that students can sharpen with an interest in going for a science-related career from the artistic to the mechanical. We want to help students recognize their strengths and how they can use them in a science career. Curiosity, persistence and an open mind are prerequisites.”