St. Louis groups hope to inspire students to become scientists through 'living lab'
A gaggle of scientists prepared to search for tagged animals in Forest Park on a recent warm November Wednesday. Well, they weren’t all scientists — at least not yet.
Ron Esterwold, Carmello Hunter and their sixth grade classmates at St. Louis Public Schools’ Long International Middle School were in Forest Park to learn about science and local wildlife. They formed a circle around Stella Uiterwaal, who was holding a mold of a turtle shell with a device stuck to the shell.
Uiterwaal is the senior scientist for the Forest Park Living Lab, a collaboration to study urban wildlife in the park among institutions including St. Louis University, Washington University, the Zoo and the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center.
Uiterwaal set up pronged metal tracking antennas for the students.
“So if we turn this on, do you guys hear this?” she asked. “This beeping sound?”
White noise and beeps started to fill the air. They got louder when the antennas were pointed in different directions, hinting at the location of toy animals the students would search for.
Ron and Carmello set off through fallen leaves, spinning in circles as they tried to decipher the volume of their device.
The Living Lab team has been bringing classes to Forest Park for a few years, to try to get more students interested in nature and science.
This field trip was one of four held this fall, funded in part by a grant from the Taylor Geospatial Institute. Gateway to the Great Outdoors, which offers environmental education experiences for students in low-income schools, partnered with the other organizations to put together the trip.
The Forest Park Living Lab works to understand the wildlife that calls the park home. That includes research on Missouri’s state reptile, the three-toed box turtle.
Ron and Carmello were tracking a turtle too, though this one was a stuffed animal. When they finally found it, they learned how to weigh the turtle in a bag, so it couldn’t crawl away.
The students rotated through activities about monarch butterfly migration, local snakes and how to use fallen leaves to identify trees.
Near the edge of Deer Lake behind the Muny, Hannah Griffis, with the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center, dipped a net into leaf litter to look for macroinvertebrates. She put the water bugs into white plastic trays so the kids would be able to see them.
“We've got one big leech in here, so hopefully that doesn't freak the kids out too much,” Griffis said. “And then we do have one mayfly, which I'm excited to see because those generally indicate good water quality.”
Griffis’ colleague, Jolena Pang, was also setting up stations for the students.
“I think we really want to teach them that they can do science, it's not so intimidating, it's not so scary,” Pang said. “Because we really need a lot of environmental scientists coming up in the next generations.”
That’s especially important as the climate continues to change. When the students were exploring this small corner of the park, the National Weather Service said St. Louis set a record high temperature for that day.
When the kids finally got to see the water inhabitants Griffis and Pang had prepared, they let out squeals of disgust and delight.
Ron wasn’t as grossed out as some of his classmates — he has some creepy-crawly pets at home, including a scorpion and a gecko. He’s also already planning on becoming a scientist.
“I read about animals and stuff because when I grow up I want to be a veterinarian,” Ron said.
Carmello’s plans aren’t as set in stone.
“I don’t know yet, but I still got a long time to think about it,” he said.