One by one, teams of campers took the stage on the morning of the first day of NOAA Science Camp to present their depictions of scientists. Some of the drawings had wild hair, lab coats, and pocket protectors, while others wore scuba gear and swam with dolphins. Throughout the rest of the week, campers would be introduced to more than a dozen real NOAA scientists, some matching those depictions and others resembling completely different images of ocean science.
Marla Steinhoff and I usually don’t wear lab coats or scuba gear as part of our work for the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division (ARD), but we do use environmental science–chemistry, mapping, and toxicology–to investigate the sources and effects of contaminants at hazardous waste sites and oil spills.
For the last two weeks in July, we teamed up with staff from NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab to host a group of 11 Science Campers to investigate the water chemistry surrounding a mysterious (hypothetical) fish kill in Puget Sound while other small groups went to different NOAA offices to explore other aspects of the fish kill. The situation: A woman walking her dog along a beach first stumbles upon dead fish at the mouth of a creek and later, a smelly, black slime on the shore. She looks out to the water and sees the bobbing heads and fins of some animals offshore.
Armed with these snippets of information, campers developed their own theories about what could have caused the fish kill. An oil spill? A “red tide” from harmful algae? Chemical runoff? They arrived at our lab with questions about dissolved oxygen, turbidity (how murky the water appears), pesticides, oil, algae, and more. With guidance from PMEL, the campers examined scanning electron microscope photographs of plankton taken from the location of the fish kill and, comparing them to identification charts, were able to rule out the possibility of red tide.
The campers’ next steps were colorimetric tests for dissolved oxygen, pH, and (Word of the Day) chlorpyrifos, a chemical insecticide. In these tests, campers added to the water samples a reactive chemical which changes color in the presence of, for example, oxygen or a pesticide, and they compared the results to a reference range of hues. Just as we do for our real-life hazardous waste sites and oil spills, we looked at data from the scientific literature to determine the safe and unsafe levels of oxygen, pH, chlorpyrifos, and oil for fish and compared our measurements to those levels. We mapped the results: See if you can identify the source of the chlorpyrifos.
Once reunited with their larger groups, the campers pieced together information from multiple NOAA offices to deduce an explanation for the fish kill. They created posters describing their hypotheses, their investigation methods, and their conclusions, and on the last day of camp, proudly presented the posters to their parents, NOAA scientists, and camp staff. When I showed up at the poster session as a judge, I met excited crowds of campers eager to talk about their work.
ARD also got involved with other parts of camp. Along with physical scientist Ian Zelo, I planned and taught a session in which campers used watershed models to simulate groundwater flow and surface runoff.
Campers identified sources and effects of nonpoint source pollution in the environment and came up with creative solutions for pollution prevention and cleanup. The groundwater model is always a hit with the campers. It is a clear, rectangular plastic tank of sand and gravel that looks something like an ant farm. We can pump water through the tank to see the water table rise and fall, and we can add food coloring to represent groundwater pollutants. Although it’s usually out of sight, groundwater becomes visible with this model, and campers can see how pollutants can be transported with the groundwater into wells, lakes, or rivers.
Additionally, this year’s camp introduced a career and leadership program for high school-age campers, which included interviews with NOAA staff about education and career paths. I met with two of the high school students for an interview about OR&R’s work and about NOAA scholarships and fellowships. The students were full of questions about work, internships, school, and science.
It felt great to share my excitement about OR&R’s work with a brainy and enthusiastic group of students (and camp staff). Wherever their interests take them, I hope they keep thinking critically to solve problems and protect the environment, just as they did as junior scientists at NOAA Science Camp.
(Stay tuned for an upcoming post about a mock oil spill scenario my co-workers in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division staged with students during Science Camp!)