Phytoplankton Soup!

It’s the last week before the school year starts and we squeezed in one last summer field trip to Friday Harbor, where some of the scientists I work with at Institute for Systems Biology have been conducting research related to ocean acidification. The Friday Harbor Labs belong to the University of Washington, but other researchers can rent the facilities, too.

Getting to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island required a significant amount of patience from the kids: 2 hours to Anacortes, a short wait for the ferry, 1 hour on the ferry.

Ferry to Friday Harbor
Ferry to Friday Harbor

But once we arrived, there was plenty to see at the labs.

UW's Friday Harbor Labs
UW’s Friday Harbor Labs

The kids got to peer into the microscope to see various phytoplankton, which are responsible for photosynthesis and play a key role in the food web in seawater and freshwater. There are hundreds of types of phytoplankton, but the the sample the kids got to see primarily contained Thalassiosira, Coscinodiscus, Chaetoceros, and Ditylum, as well as zooplankton and larvae (e.g. sea urchin, jelly fish). These organisms live in the waters just off the pier at the Friday Harbor Labs.

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There is a small pool in the lobby of the main lab building, where visitors can see some of the creatures that live in the waters.

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In the afternoon, the researchers (Monica Orellana, Allison Lee and Jake Valenzuela) took a row boat into the bay to collect water samples. Allison is using a mesh phytoplankton net that concentrates the organisms in a cup-like container.

Sampling

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Phytoplankton net

The reason the scientists were collecting samples was to be able to study how these organisms respond to different pH levels.

Ocean Acidification Experiments

It wasn’t all fun for the kids. Because I did have to do a little work, there were a few moments of down time when the kids got bored.

Boredom

I’m fortunate that I was able to bring the kids along on this trip. I don’t know what their minds retained from that day, but they can say that they went to the labs and looked into a microscope. Sometimes, that’s all that it takes to inspire a kid.

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Research: Spatial Ability Indicates Creativity – aka Buy More LEGOs

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Do you have LEGO blocks everywhere in your house like we do? If my son could read, he would be waving this July 15 New York Times article about a recent study on how spatial ability can be a better indicator of a child’s future creativity and innovation than math and verbal skills. From the article:

Cognitive psychologists have long suspected that spatial ability — sometimes referred to as the “orphan ability” for its tendency to go undetected — is key to success in technical fields. Earlier studies have shown that students with a high spatial aptitude are not only overrepresented in those fields, but may receive little guidance in high school and underachieve as a result. (Note to parents: Legos and chemistry sets are considered good gifts for the spatial relations set.)

We have more pieces of LEGO than we can count, especially after my mother-in-law brought over a box of my husband’s bricks she had saved from when he was a child. It’s only July, but Shen has started to ask for a Star Wars LEGO set for Christmas.

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But given this study, which was published on July 15 in the journal Psychological Science, I’d rather get one of the LEGO education sets. If you visit the LEGO education site, you will see sets that focus on science, design and technology and are categorized by school-age group. I have my eye on the Early Simple Machines set, which offers these learning objectives:

  • Exploring basic mechanical principles such as gears, levers, pulleys, wheels and axles
  • Investigating force, buoyancy and balance
  • Solving problems through design

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It’s not cheap, though. One listing on Amazon.com shows the cost is $128. Ouch. It looks like I need to spend some time on Ebay and Craigslist.

Full NYT article

LEGO Education

Research: ‘To Get Children to Eat Veggies, Add Science’

Meilee and Shen pose with the first squash blossom from their pumpkin plant.
Meilee and Shen pose with the first squash blossom from their pumpkin plant.

“(A new study shows) that scientists can overcome the child-vegetable repulsive principle. Remarkably, the scientists in question are the children themselves. It turns out that, by giving preschoolers a new theory of nutrition, you can get them to eat more vegetables.”

This quote comes from a Mind & Matter column by Alison Gopnik in the July 13-14 Review section of The Wall Street Journal. Gopnik is the author of the book “The Scientist in the Crib” and has argued that “very young children construct intuitive theories of the world around them…these theories are coherent, causal representations of how things or people or animals work. Just like scientific theories, they let children make sense of the world, construct predictions and design intelligent actions.”

This piece and the Stanford University study to which Gopnik refers suggest to me that if children have a natural inclination toward a scientific mind, then we have to nurture their abilities. It’s a great irony that in order to teach our children how to function in society, we often end up curbing qualities – curiosity, fearlessness, inquisitiveness, unbridled joy – that can help them succeed in life. Or, in this case, eat more vegetables.

Read Alison Gopnik’s column here.