Meet Switgard Duesterloh

Switgard Duesterloh is a scientist and marine educator in Kodiak who connects kids with science, including ocean acidification.

Q: Please tell us a little about your background, and how you got involved in marine education and ocean acidification.

I grew up away from the ocean in a town in Germany. My first memory of getting hooked on the wonders of the marine world are of a TV show that featured Hans Hass and Jacques Cousteau diving with what we would now consider ancient scuba gear. These were the first pioneer explorers into an unknown realm of ocean life, and it fascinated me in a way that planted the idea that I wanted to become a marine biologist. Lucky for me, I had all the support from my family that was needed, and opportunities presented themselves throughout the years with unforgettable experiences of my own: Diving in the North and Mediterranean Seas, working as a student on research vessels from the Greenland Sea to the Bay of Biscay, and getting a chance to take a submarine dive in Glacier Bay, Alaska.

Feeling a deep connection and sense of wonder for the ocean realm is what made me study and explore, but also get involved in ocean conservation issues. I first came to Alaska to do my PhD work on toxicology in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. When climate change began to emerge as a topic, I quickly understood it would shape our lifetime and future, and I became more aware of the need for interdisciplinary research and an overall view of ecosystem responses.

At that time in my life, I had married an Alaskan fisherman and was juggling work and being a mom. When my son was in school, I found that teachers were asking me to come and do science in the classrooms. I soon noticed that while we have many scientists in Kodiak willing to share their love of marine science with kids, there was a disconnect between the school system and the science community and there was a niche for someone to step in and create a structure to better connect the two.

Q: Can you tell us about the program you started with the schools?

In 2008 I started the Ocean Science Discovery Program to bring marine science into the schools. The program grew over the next few years to provide a grade level specific marine science unit to all students in the Kodiak town 3rd-8th grade classes. Elementary units filled one morning, in which students came to the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center to experience hands-on units with live animals. Middle school units were taught over one week in the classrooms, and materials and animals were transported to the school. In addition, there were at various times rural school programs, after school programs, Marine Science week programs, science camps, art programs, and for 7 years I coached the Kodiak High School Tsunami Bowl (marine science competition) team. The Ocean Science Discovery Program was very well received by teachers, because each unit was designed to fit into grade level science standards, and students and parents just loved the direct exposure to the animals in the setting of a real research facility.

Q: Over the years, you’ve come up with hands-on ideas for teaching ocean acidification to kids. Can you tell us a little more about your approach and what you did with the kids in Kodiak?

Since I started the Ocean Science Discovery Program one of the instrumental supporters of the effort has been Dr. Foy, director of the Kodiak Laboratory of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. For a couple of years in the beginning I split my time between contracting for the laboratory and running the education program. Because my contract work was in ocean acidification research and because of the importance of that research to the Kodiak community I felt it was essential that students graduating from school in Kodiak should be knowledgeable to talk about and understand the issues and causes of ocean acidification. Over the years I have tried a few ambitious research projects with students, and while I do think that those students walked away with valuable experiences and an understanding of the issues, mainstream science teaching in school requires very clear-cut results, easy to interpret, with visible effects in a matter of days. We need to distinguish here between learning science and conducting original research. The latter is poorly placed in a classroom for reasons I could discuss at length with anyone interested in having lunch with me 😉

Q: We heard the kids were working with sea urchins.  Tell us more about that.

With a good chunk of time and access to a state-of-the-art ocean acidification research lab, rearing sea urchin larvae in acidified seawater at various pH is a project that can be done with a given group of students. This kind of project fits the requirements of project-based learning. However, on a larger scale when teaching multiple classes, I prefer a structured lesson with small experiments and atomic model sets to assist understanding of the main concepts. The concept of pH alone is extremely complex and not easy for middle school students to grasp. When you take a glass of seawater with some bromothymol blue pH indicator and let the students blow bubbles into the water with a straw you are bringing the magic of chemistry to them and have created a chance to link the experience to what is happening in the ocean. I think ocean acidification is not an easy subject to teach, especially for someone who is not immersed in the topic. In other subjects, when topics are too complex to grasp at the first teaching our curriculum allows for a cycle of repetition and adding depth. Unless the science curriculum truly embraces marine science in all grades, the best we can hope for is an exposure to the topic.

Q: What age do you think is appropriate for starting to teach ocean acidification, and what take-homes do you hope the students come away with?

My philosophy is that you should not burden elementary age kids with the world’s problems. At this age you need to engage them in being curious, observing life in its various forms, asking questions, and talking about the “creature super powers”. We only care about what we know, and at this young age the kids need to discover the natural world with its wonders and meet their underwater neighbors up close and personal. The other reason not to teach OA in elementary is that the brain of a young child is mostly bi-modal: Something is good or bad, alive or dead, white or black. If something is a threat to the child, it is the adult’s job to protect the child. Loaded with problems they cannot solve, some kids develop nightmares, which is not what you want.

It is only in 6th and 7th grade, that kids begin to see that an impact can be a concern, even if it doesn’t kill everything. In Middle school it is important to discuss population impacts and delayed effects with students to open their eyes to environmental impacts that are less obvious. Another important message to convey is that all life forms are connected to each other, to the environment, and to us and whenever one is in trouble, it has ripple effects on everything around.

What I do think we should teach in elementary is a first exposure to pH. There are very cool experiments with red cabbage juice that changes color depending on what you add into it. At this stage you should simply introduce the terms acid and base and neutral and let the kids play with creating colors and encourage and summarize observations. I often had to redirect my lessons in Middle School because kids had trouble with the difference between acidity and salinity. Whatever you can do to avoid that you have to introduce the pH scale at the same time you are teaching about OA is great.

Personally, I like to teach the OA “story” in 7th grade (but I have taught it in 6th grade too). The students are old enough to understand and connect the various concepts involved, but are still interested and excitable. To really go into depth on the topic it takes a select group of High School students. I find that if you have High School students who are motivated and crave a challenge, the sky is the limit to what they can accomplish given personal support. However, if you have a class of unmotivated teenagers, you may just find out that we don’t pay High School teachers enough.

Q: Do you have advice for educators teaching about OA? 

My advice for educators teaching about OA is to prepare the lesson well and find out what your students have been exposed to. Do they know about climate change in depth or is it just an empty term for them? What role does carbon dioxide play in climate change? What is an acid, what is pH? How does the ocean affect our daily lives? Is the ocean one and the same everywhere; how do scientists define a water mass? Why does OA matter?

Today’s lesson plans allow very limited discussion time. I really think that is a mistake and students need to hone their discussion skills and learn to speak up in a group. Discussion also helps those willing to participate to feel as part of the lesson rather than audience.

If you cannot work directly with a researcher who is actively engaged in ocean acidification research, create a list of questions with your students and find an expert to call. There are many scientists who will be more than happy to get on the phone with you and your class or come in and answer your questions. They can also help you with misconceptions and make that important real-world link. Since you are reading this, you have already found a good site to connect you with OA experts.

Q: Please tell us about one of your favorite moments as a science educator

Two years ago, I developed a project-based learning unit for 6th grade. It covered the spectrum of climate change, introduction to pH and OA including effects on Alaskan marine species. We were spawning sea urchins and the kids decided how to design an experiment to see if pH affected their development. One of the student’s Mom ran a local radio station and came into the classroom to report on the unit (radio story). At one point she interviewed a boy and asked if he believed in climate change, because some people did not. His answer came promptly and with gusto: “Some people believe the world is a straight line!”  I had to laugh so hard I almost had to leave the class. His response to the reporter made weeks of hard work worth every minute!

Q: We understand the program is no longer funded. What are the plans for the future?

Yes, at the moment the Ocean Science Discovery Program is very scaled back. Funding a program like this is a challenge because it literally operates between the school district and the science community but is not directly integrated in either budget. Over the years, there has always been a creative contract and a lot of support to find ways to keep the program going. Presently, education in Alaska is not well funded and funds are lacking everywhere. I have been able to keep the elementary program running for grades 3-5 this year, but had to scale back everything else. In the meantime, I am contracting for NOAA, working as a chemist in ocean acidification research and learning a great deal.

My plans for the future are to revive, expand and diversify the program. I am seeking partners for a three-pronged approach, which includes the Ocean Science Discovery Program as a school program, a science camp/science week program, which will also be able to travel to other coastal communities, and a Kodiak visitor environmental education program. Rather than dividing myself to develop, teach and administer everything, while changing each program every year, I will direct a program that spans the worlds of professional and personal development for adults with a passion to share, environmental education for kids and visitors, and maintain the Ocean Science Discovery Program as a local science education resource. This larger vision is able to incorporate a variety of grants, and work with people who wish to share their enthusiasm and skill in environmental education without having to commit their life to it. The framework of this business will have a common structure and protocol for all programs, which includes a workshop for the team of educators in conjunction with every science week/camp, a catalog of marine science and art activities to choose from, and a library of activity boxes pre-packed with the materials needed. Many of these activities are already designed and ready, including a week of hands-on ocean acidification learning.

The final component I am still working on is how to culminate each program in the development of societal goals for change, their accountability and their implementation.

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