Once a month, students from MAST@FIU gather along the shores of northern Biscayne Bay to study its fish populations.
Under the guidance of MAST@FIU teacher Bridgette Gunn ‘12 and volunteers from FIU’s School of Environment, Arts and Society (SEAS), the high school sophomores and juniors utilize the living laboratory to gather original data on the environment — including temperature, cloud cover, wind speed, salinity and turbidity — as part of a long-term ecological monitoring project. Deploying a seine net, they safely catch and release juvenile fish to collect information on species type, length and mass. At the end of this school year, the budding scientists will report and present their findings to their peers, making a case for which factors, including urbanization and climate change, they think are behind observed patterns in the bay’s fish populations.
The experiential-learning project was developed by Gunn as part of her graduate research at Montana State University dedicated to evaluating the impact of project-based learning on academic performance and perceptions of STEM careers. Gunn, who earned a bachelor’s degree in marine sciences at FIU, also hopes to determine if student-generated data can complement professionally derived data sets by local environmental resource managers.
“This level of student involvement can help reinforce not just curricular content, but also environmentally conscientious principles that will foster the next generation of environmental stewards,” Gunn said. “Ultimately, it’s important to me that I know what I’m doing with my students works and why it works. Conducting research on my teaching practices is the best way for me to cater my instructional material to the needs of my students.”
For 11th grade student Anika Augustine, the monitoring project has helped reinforce what she has read about in textbooks and discussed with her teachers and peers in the classroom.
“For me, it’s offered new insight,” Augustine said. “I’ve always liked science, but my experience has been in the lab. This has allowed me to go outdoors and learn about the ecosystem in a hands-on way. It’s helped me understand the importance of collecting long-term data to get a baseline of how something changes over time.”
The long-term ecological monitoring project also helps the high school students develop mentorship skills by pairing them with eighth graders from David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. With support from SEAS, the middle school students were recently invited to FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus to work hand-in-hand with the high schoolers in evaluating the fish caught in the seine net.
“SEAS creates K-12 environmental literacy programs that offer opportunities for students to access local ecosystems, gain hands-on experience with scientific procedures, and understand environmental problems and solutions,” said Nick Ogle, SEAS environmental coordinator. “The hope is the program will build on itself year after year, producing a long-term data set that can be used to explore the effects of seasonal and environmental changes on juvenile fish species in Biscayne Bay.”