NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

What Killed the Fish? Young Scientists Test the Waters


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.

Girl identifying algae

A Science Camper tries her hand at identifying algae found at the scene of the environmental “mystery,” trying to determine whether they are a harmful algal type. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

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.

Girl comparing water sample to colorimetric reference kit

A budding scientist compares her water sample’s dissolved oxygen level to the reference kit during a colorimetric test. Credit: Ashley Braun, NOAA.

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.

Map of insecticide levels hypothetically found in Puget Sound during a Science Camp exercise

Map of insecticide levels hypothetically found during a Science Camp exercise. Click image for larger view.

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.

Science Campers with one of the watershed models

Campers explore how pollution can travel through a watershed and affect marine life with one of the watershed models. Credit: NOAA Science Camp.

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.

Camper presenting his group's scientific conclusions

A camper presents his group’s scientific conclusions at the end of Science Camp. Credit: NOAA Science Camp.

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!)

Author: Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is an Environmental Scientist with the Office of Response and Restoration's Assessment and Restoration Division. Based in Seattle, she works on hazardous waste sites and oil spills in the Pacific Northwest and in the Great Lakes region.

2 thoughts on “What Killed the Fish? Young Scientists Test the Waters

  1. Nice article! I love to hear about youngsters meeting up with science and logic in innovative ways! Now can you give a science camp for some of our Washington legislators?

    • Thanks, Dad! I do think science camp would be fun for all ages and everybody could learn something from it. This year we expanded it to 9th and 10th graders… next, the world!

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