MSRI Works With High School Students

The Navigator

Photo by Lorna Kelso

Goals are being met at the Marine Science Research Institute with their ongoing educational project that includes the younger generation of the local community. Jacksonville University students are working with 30 Terry Parker High School students to study organisms in the St. Johns River.
“The whole idea is for JU students to get experience mentoring,” said Dan McCarthy, associate professor of biology at JU. “And for high school students to learn more about science and get a feel for college life.”

The students are studying different sized reef balls to assess how animals in the wild use them. Reef balls are concrete semi spheres with little holes all around them that sit at the bottom of the ocean floor to provide homes for animals such as fish, crabs, and shrimp.

At the end of February they recovered the reef balls and were able to identify and count the animals that were living on them to see which reef balls were more effective.
“With science you are doing something you’ve never done before so there is a different thought process,” McCarthy said. “You do not know what is going to happen next.”
Rachel Rhode, one of the leaders of the project, said she helped come up with different observations for the high school students to discover. Last year she and two others put the reef balls out in the St. John’s River. They ensured that the balls were in the correct placement for the organisms to use them.

“Over the course of last year and most of this year I regularly went out to observe the environmental impact on the reef balls noting any drastic changes,” Rhode said via email exchange.

The college students explained what was happening with the reef balls to the high school students and lead them through the process.

“We assisted them in rinsing off the reef balls and collecting all live marine organisms to preserve later on,” Rhode said.

The student leaders learned how to maintain a yearlong project and set it up so that others could see the results.

“I also gained skills in communicating with younger students and letting them experience what they may be doing in the future,” Rhode said.

Rhode said that the project impacted her life in more ways than one.

“Obviously this project will be noticed by future employers,” Rhode said. “But I also gained a better understanding of what is in the river and how something as simple as a reef ball can bring life to a lifeless object.”

The MSRI’s objective of helping the community learn more about the waterways and how to work to improve them helped Rhode benefit from giving back.

“I think the best part of this whole project was seeing the faces of the high school students make when they saw all of the organisms they collected,” Rhode said. “I don’t think they were expecting to find so much stuff.”

McCarthy said that the group expected to find a lot of little crabs but actually found polychaete worms.

“Tons of them,” McCarthy said. “Most people might be like, ‘eww worms,’ but they are very important because they are a source of food for other animals in the water.”

McCarthy said that their findings could suggest that the reef balls are promoting a diverse community of organisms.

“It may indicate that we are putting something there that might not have been there otherwise that serves as a good home for these organisms.”