Increase your broader impacts with Data Nuggets! LTER ASM Meeting 2015

DSCN7466Sharing research findings with the non-science public is an important part of the science process, yet is often one of the most challenging to achieve. With broader impacts a factor in most grants, finding effective methods of transmission is key. Data Nuggets, a GK-12 initiative from the Kellogg Biological Station is a practical, high-impact solution to this conundrum. If you need to increase broader impacts for your research and want to further develop your communication skills, come to our hands-on workshop and create a Data Nugget based on your research!

Data Nuggets are targeted classroom activities that emphasize developing quantitative skills for K-16 students. They are created from recent and ongoing research, bringing cutting edge science into the classroom and helping scientists share their work with broad audiences. The standard format of each Data Nugget provides a brief background to a researcher and their study system along with a dataset from their research. Students are challenged to answer a scientific question, using the dataset to support their claim, and are guided through the construction of graphs to facilitate data interpretation.

DSCN7474We are currently seeking to add to our collection of Data Nuggets to showcase science done at LTER sites across the country. See examples of LTER Data Nuggets and learn more about our project by clicking on our LTER tag. During the workshop we will walk you through our templates for experimental and observational data, and help you identify a proper dataset, scientific question, and hypothesis for students of many ages. In order to finish a Data Nugget within the allotted time, participants must come to the workshop with a dataset already selected and analyzed.

  • Workshop info can be found here.
  • Organizers: Mary Spivey, Elizabeth Schultheis, and Melissa Kjelvik
  • Monday, August 31st – Working Group Session II

The mystery of Plum Island Marsh

Scientist, Harriet Booth, counting and collecting mudsnails from a mudflat at low tide.

Scientist, Harriet Booth, counting and collecting mudsnails from a mudflat at low tide.

The activities are as follows:

Salt marshes are among the most productive coastal ecosystems. They support a diversity of plants and animals. Algae and marsh plants feed many invertebrates, like snails and crabs, which are then eaten by fish and birds. This flow of energy through the food web is important for the functioning of the marsh. Today, we are adding large amounts of fertilizers to our lawns and agricultural areas. When it rains these nutrients runoff into marshes. Marsh plants and algae can then use theses extra nutrients to grow and reproduce faster. Changes in any links in the food chain can have cascading effects throughout the ecosystem.

To understand how these nutrients will affect the marsh food web, scientists working at Plum Island Marsh experimentally fertilized several salt marsh creeks for many years. In 2009, they noticed that fish populations were declining in the fertilized creeks. Because fertilizer does not have any direct effect on fish, they wondered what could fertilizer be changing in the system that would affect fish? That same year they also noticed the mudflats in the fertilized creeks were covered in mudsnails, far more so than in previous years. These mudsnails eat the same algae that fish eat, and they compete for space on the mudflats with the small invertebrates that the fish also eat. The scientists thought that the large populations of mudsnails were causing the mysterious disappearance of fish in fertilized creeks by decreasing the number of algae and invertebrates in fertilized creeks.

View of a Plum Island salt marsh.

View of a Plum Island salt marsh.

A few years later, Harriet began working as one of the scientists at Plum Island Marsh. She was worried mudsnails were getting a bad reputation. There was no evidence to show they were causing the decline in fish populations. She decided to collect some data. If mudsnails were competing with the invertebrates that fish eat, she expected to find high densities of mudsnails and low densities of invertebrates in the fertilized creeks. In the summer of 2012, Harriet counted and collected mudsnails using a quadrat (shown in the photo), and took cores down into the mud to measure the other invertebrates in the mudflats of the creeks. She randomly sampled 20 locations along a 200-meter stretch of creek at low tide. The data she collected is found below and can help determine whether mudsnails are responsible for the disappearance of fish in fertilized creeks.

Mudsnails on a mudflat, and the quadrat used to study their population size.

Mudsnails on a mudflat, and the quadrat used to study their population size.

Featured scientist: Harriet Booth from Northeastern University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.9

Click here for a great blog post by Harriet detailing her time spent in the salt marsh: Harriet Booth: Unraveling the mysteries of Plum Island’s marshes

Invasive reeds in the salt marsh

Culverts run under roads and allow water from the ocean to enter a marsh. Phragmites can be seen growing in the background.

Culverts run under roads and allow water from the ocean to enter a marsh. Phragmites can be seen growing in the background.

The activities are as follows:

Phragmites australis is an invasive reed, a type of grass that grows in water. Phragmites is taking over saltwater marshes in New England, or wetland habitats near the Atlantic Ocean coast. Phragmites does so well it crowds out native plants that once served as food and homes for marsh animals. Once Phragmites has invaded, it is sometimes the only plant species left! Phragmites does best where humans have disturbed a marsh, and scientists were curious why that might be. They thought that perhaps when a marsh is disturbed, the salinity, or amount of salt in the water, changes. Phragmites might be able to survive after disturbances that cause the amount of salt in the water to drop, but becomes stressed when salinity is high.

Students collecting data on the plant species present in the marsh using transects. Every 1m along the tape, students observe which plants are present. Phragmites is the tall grass that can be seen growing behind the students.

Students collecting data on the plant species present in the marsh using transects. Every 1m along the tape, students observe which plants are present. Phragmites is the tall grass that can be seen growing behind the students.

Fresh water in a marsh flows from the upstream source to downstream. Saltwater marshes end at the ocean, where freshwater mixes with salty ocean water. One type of disturbance is when a road is cut through a marsh. Upstream of the road, the marsh is cut off from the salt waters from the ocean, so only fresh water will enter and salinity will drop. Downstream of the road, the marsh is still connected to the ocean and salinity should be unaffected by the disturbance. Often, a culvert (a pipe that runs under the road) is placed to allow salt water to pass from the ocean into the marsh. The amount of ocean water flowing into the marsh is dependent on the diameter of the culvert.

Students at Ipswich High School worked with scientists from the Mass Audubon, a conservation organization, to look at the Phragmites in the marsh. They looked at an area where the salinity in the marsh changed after a road was built. They wanted to know if this change would affect the amount of Phragmites in that marsh. In 1996, permanent posts were placed 25 meters apart in the marsh. That way, scientists could collect data from the same points each year. At these posts, students used transects, a straight line measured from a point to mark where data is collected. Then they collected data on all the plants that were found every meter along the transects. Data has been collected at these same points since 1996. In 2005, an old 30cm diameter culvert was replaced with two 122cm culverts. These wider culverts allow much more salty ocean water to flow under the road and into the marsh. Students predicted that after the culverts were widened, more ocean water would enter the marsh. This would make salinity go up, making it harder for Phragmites to grow, and it would decline in numbers. Students continued to survey the plants found along transects at each permanent post and documented their findings.

Featured scientists: Lori LaFrance from Ipswich High School, Massachusetts and Liz Duff from Mass Audubon. This study was part of the PIE-LTER funded by the NSF.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.0

To access the original data presented in this activity, and collected by students, access Mass Audubon’s Vegetation Data, available online. To access the salinity data related to this activity, and collected by students, access Mass Audubon’s Salinity Data, available online. Scroll down to “Ipswich, MA, Town Farm Road” for data from the site discussed here.

View of the two new culverts.

View of the two new culverts.

The old pipe that was removed.

The old pipe that was removed, and the new culvert.

 

 

 

Arial view of the upstream and downstream research sites.

Arial view of the upstream and downstream research sites.

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Growing energy: comparing biofuel crop biomass

The activities are as follows:GLBRC1

Most of us use fossil fuels every day. Fossil fuels power our cars, heat and cool our homes, and are used to produce most of the things we buy. These energy sources are called “fossil” fuels because they are made from plants that grew hundreds of millions of years ago. After these plants died, their tissues were slowly converted into coal, oil, and natural gas. An important fact about fossil fuels is that they are limited and nonrenewable. It takes a long time for dead plants to be converted into fossil fuels. Once we run out of the supply we have on Earth today, we are out! We need to think of new ways to power our world now that we use more energy than ever.

Biofuels are a potential replacement for fossil fuels. Biofuels, like fossil fuels, are made from the tissues of plants. The big difference is they are made from plants that are alive and growing today. Biofuels are renewable, meaning we can produce them as quickly as we use them up. At the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center sites in Wisconsin and Michigan, scientists and engineers are attempting to figure out which plants make the best biofuels. Plants that grow bigger and faster make more tissues that can be used to produce more biofuel.

GLBRC2

Gregg is a scientist who wants to find out how much plant tissue, called biomass, can be harvested from different crops like corn, grasses, weeds, and trees. Gregg is interested in maximizing how much biomass we can produce while also not harming the environment. Each plant species comes with a tradeoff – some may be good at growing big, but need lots of inputs like fertilizer and pesticide. Corn is an annual, meaning it only lives for one year. Corn is one of the best crops for producing a lot of biomass. However, farmers must add a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to their fields to plant corn every year. These chemicals harm the environment and cost farmers money. Other plants harvested for biofuels, like switchgrass, prairie species, poplar trees, and Miscanthus grass are perennials. Perennials grow back year after year without replanting. Perennials require much less chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow. If perennials can produce high levels of biomass with low levels of soil nutrients, perhaps a perennial crop could replace corn as the best biofuel crop.

Gregg out in the GLBRC

Gregg out in the WI experimental farm.

To test this hypothesis, scientists worked together to design a very large experiment. Gregg and his team grew multiple plots of six different biofuel crops on experimental farms in Wisconsin and Michigan. The soils at the Wisconsin site are more fertile and have more nutrients than the soils at the Michigan site. At each farm, they grew plots of corn to be compared to the growth of plants in five types of perennial plots. The types of perennial plots they planted were: switchgrass, Miscanthus grass, poplar saplings (trees), a mix of prairie species, and weedy fields. Every fall the scientists harvested, dried, and then weighed the biomass from each plot. They continued taking measurements for five years and then calculated the average biomass production in a year for each plot type at each site.

Featured scientist: Dr. Gregg Sanford from University of Wisconsin-Madison

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.5

This Data Nugget was adapted from a data analysis activity developed by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC). For a more detailed version of this lesson plan, including a supplemental reading, biomass harvest video and extension activities, click here.

This lesson can be paired with The Science of Farming research story to learn a bit more about the process of designing large-scale agricultural experiments that need to account for lots of variables.

For a classroom reading, click here to download an article written for the public on these research findings. Click here for the scientific publication. For more bioenergy lesson plans by the GLBRC, check out their education page.

Aerial view of GLBRC KBS LTER cellulosic biofuels research experiment; Photo Credit: KBS LTER, Michigan State University

Aerial view of GLBRC KBS LTER cellulosic biofuels research experiment; Photo Credit: KBS LTER, Michigan State University

 For more photos of the GLBRC site in Michigan, click here.

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The ground has gas!

Measuring nitrogen (N2O) gas escaping from the soil in summer.

Measuring nitrogen (N2O) gas escaping from the soil in summer. Photo credit: Julie Doll, Michigan State University

The activities are as follows:

If you dig through soil, you’ll notice that soil is not hard like a rock, but contains many air pockets between soil grains. These spaces in the soil contain gases, which together are called the soil atmosphere. The soil atmosphere contains the same gases as the atmosphere that surrounds us above ground, but in different concentrations. It has the same amount of nitrogen, slightly less oxygen (O2), 3-100 times more carbon dioxide (CO2), and 5-30 times more nitrous oxide (N2O, which is laughing gas!).

Measuring nitrogen (N2O) gas escaping from the soil in winter.

Measuring nitrogen (N2O) gas escaping from the soil in winter. Photo credit: Julie Doll Michigan State University.

Nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide are responsible for much of the warming of the global average temperature that is causing climate change. Sometimes soils give off, or emit, these greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere, adding to climate change. Currently scientists are working to figure out why soils emit different amounts of these greenhouse gasses.

During the summer of 2010, researchers at Michigan State University studied nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from farm soils. They measured three things: (1) the concentration of nitrous oxide 25 centimeters below the surface of the soil (2) the amount of nitrous oxide leaving the soil (3) and the average temperature on the days that nitrous oxide was measured. The scientists expected that the amount of nitrous oxide entering the atmosphere would depend on how much nitrous oxide was in the soil and on the temperature.

Featured scientist: Iurii Shcherbak from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.2

More information on the research associated with this Data Nugget can be found hereInformation on the effects of climate change in Michigan can be found here.

Data associated with this Data Nugget can be found on the MSU LTER website data tables under GLBRC Biofuel Cropping System Experiment. Bioenergy research classroom materials can be found here. More images can be found on the LTER website.

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Fertilizing biofuels may cause release of greenhouse gasses

An aerial view of the experiment at MSU where biofuels are grown

An aerial view of the experiment at MSU where biofuels are grown. Photo credit: K. Stepnitz, MSU

The activities are as follows:

Greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, like carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O), trap heat from the sun and warm the earth. We need some greenhouse gases to keep the planet warm enough for life. But today, the majority (97%) of scientists agree that the levels of greenhouse gases are getting dangerously high and are causing changes in our climate that may be hard for us to adjust to.

Scientist Leilei collecting samples of gasses released by the growing of biofuels

Scientist Leilei collecting samples of gasses released by the growing of biofuels. Photo credit: K. Stepnitz, MSU

Greenhouse gases are released when we burn fuels to heat and cool our homes or power our cars. Most of the energy we use today comes from fossil fuels. These energy sources are called “fossil” fuels because they are made from plants that grew hundreds of millions of years ago! After these plants died, their tissues were slowly converted into coal, oil, and natural gas. An important fact about fossil fuels is that when we use them, they release CO2 that was stored millions of years ago into our atmosphere. The release of this stored carbon is adding more and more greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. In order to reduce the effects of climate change, we need to change the way we use energy and think of new ways to power our world.

One potential solution could be to grow our fuel instead of drilling for it. Biofuels are a potential substitute for fossil fuels. Biofuels, like fossil fuels, are made from the tissues of plants. The big difference is that they are made from plants that are alive and growing today. Unlike fossil fuels that emit CO2, biofuel crops first remove CO2 from the atmosphere as the plants grow and photosynthesize. When biofuels are burned for fuel, the CO2 is emitted back into the atmosphere, balancing the total amount that was removed and released.

Scientists are interested in figuring out if biofuels make a good replacement for fossil fuels. It is still not clear if the plants that are used to produce biofuels are able to absorb enough CO2 to offset all of the greenhouse gases that are emitted when biofuels are produced. Additional greenhouse gases are emitted when producing biofuels because it takes energy to plant, water, and harvest the crops, as well as to convert them into fuel. In order to maximize plant growth, many biofuel crops are fertilized by adding nitrogen (N) fertilizer to the soil. However, if there is too much nitrogen in the soil for the crops to take up, it may instead be released into the atmosphere as the gas nitrous oxide (N2O). N2O is a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential nearly 300 times higher than CO2! Global warming potential is a relative measure of how much heat a greenhouse gas traps in the atmosphere.

Leilei is a scientist who researches whether biofuels make a good alternative to fossil fuels. He wondered whether there were steps that farmers could take to reduce the amount of N2O released when growing biofuel crops. Leilei designed an experiment to determine how much N2O is emitted when different amounts of nitrogen fertilizer are added to the soil. In other words, he wanted to know whether the amount of N2O that is emitted into the atmosphere depends on how much fertilizer is added to the field. To test this idea, he looked at fields of switchgrass, a perennial grass native to North America, that is one of the most promising biofuel crops. These fields of switchgrass were first planted in 2008 as a part of a very large long-term study at the Kellogg Biological Station in southwest Michigan. The researchers set up eight fertilization treatments (0, 28, 56, 84, 112, 140, 168, and 196 kg N ha−1) in four replicate fields of switchgrass, for a total of 32 research plots. Leilei measured how much N2O was released by the soil in the 32 research plots for many years. Here we have two years of Leilei’s data.

Featured scientist: Leilei Ruan from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.1

More information on LTER climate change research can be found hereInformation on the effects of climate change in Michigan can be found here.

Data associated with this Data Nugget can be found on the MSU LTER website data tables under GLBRC Biofuel Cropping System Experiment. Bioenergy research classroom materials can be found here. More images can be found on the LTER website.

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Data Nuggets: Small activities with big impacts for students

See the original article on the LTER webpage (reproduced below)

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The landscape of science education is undergoing a fundamental shift. Updated standards, to be followed by all science teachers in Michigan, emphasize that science is an active process: instead of the memorization of facts in textbooks, students should be taught the ability to generate new knowledge by testing hypotheses and interpreting data. In other words, students should be taught how to use the scientific method and make arguments from evidence. However, with the scientific method comes uncertainty in results. Educators, like K-12 Partnership teacher Connie High (Delton-Kellogg High School), express concern that teachers and their students are not comfortable with the messy data that can result from inquiry, such as results that do not support a hypothesis, or data with lots of variability: “We often found that although lab experiences were fun for students, they lacked skills in summarizing the meaning or goal [of their research]… we needed some data sets for students to practice on.”

As graduate students, we have experienced our fair share of unexpected results and experiments gone awry, and have no problem reassuring teachers that this is nothing to be afraid of. Often, we learn more from data that goes against our original hypothesis, but this can be intimidating in a classroom setting with limited time or ability to conduct follow-up experiments. Because we cannot go into every classroom to share this message, we thought that it would benefit students to work with data collected by scientists, instead of just seeing the polished results presented in textbooks.

Along with other fellows in the K-12 Partnership at KBS, we developed an educational tool aimed to do just that. Data Nuggets are worksheets that give students the chance to work with real data – and all its complexities. Each Data Nugget includes a brief background to a scientist and their study system along with a small, manageable dataset. Students are then given the scientist’s hypothesis and must use the data to construct an argument as to whether the data does or does not support it. One of our priorities has been to provide resources for students of all ages and skill levels because we recognize that students are often overwhelmed with data interpretation. As such, we have created Data Nuggets for students ranging from grades K-16, with varying levels of difficulty. We hope providing this structure will allow teachers to build these skills throughout a student’s entire education, ultimately preparing them for a career in science.

As we present Data Nuggets in classrooms and at national conferences, we continue to get great feedback from teachers on ways to improve the Nuggets and how teachers see them as fitting into their classrooms. “As we get our students ready for ACT testing, Data Nuggets are wonderful sets to use in our classroom because they are relevant and introduce “real” research to our students who might not have this type of exposure otherwise.” (K-12 Partnership teacher Marcia Angle, Lawton Middle School).

Melissa and Liz presenting their research to elementary students.

Melissa and Liz presenting their research to elementary students.

As scientists, we also see Data Nuggets as a great way to share our research with the public. We have each created Nuggets from our own dissertation data (Liz – invasive species, Melissa – animal behavior). Because we believe Data Nuggets could be a great way for all researchers to communicate their work as scientists, our future plans are to hold workshops to help scientists make Data Nuggets of their own. Communicating science to broad audiences is a skill that is becoming increasingly desirable for acquiring jobs and grants. We think Data Nuggets will help develop these skills in scientists of all disciplines and help them to think broadly about the societal importance of what they do.

Data Nuggets are currently funded by NSF’s BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, and originated through MSU’s GK-12 program at the Kellogg Biological Station.