Science, STEM

Amphibians in Space

The Highs and Lows of High School Space Biology

By Lesley Roberts and Richard Wassersug, PhD [Traduire]

This is the story of a scientist, a group of high school students and an unusual, but highly successful, research collaboration. Below is a description of the events that took place – and how you can conduct a similar experiment in your classroom – according to Lesley Roberts, one of the students, and Richard Wassersug, the scientist.

Photo courtesy of the CSA. The team with officials from the CSA and NRC with the aircraft used for the parabolic flight experiment.

It all started with a remarkable offer from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to Richard in the summer of 2003. The CSA wanted to know if he would like to do a parabolic flight experiment of his own design, at no cost to himself.

Parabolic flight experiments are performed on jet aircraft that accelerate upward, subsequently arching over. For some 20 seconds everything onboard the airplane experiences weightlessness – also called freefall or microgravity – just like on the orbiting Space Shuttle. Although 20 seconds is not long compared to orbital flight, it is long enough to observe the reflexive responses of animals to microgravity, a topic that Richard has investigated in the past, and the reason why he quickly accepted the CSA’s offer – he could watch the reactions of animals that had never before experienced weightlessness in such an environment.

Access to aircraft, especially one that can safely fly parabolic trajectories, is limited and expensive. The CSA was willing to cover all expenses associated with the experiment, including the use of a National Research Council (NRC) aircraft specially modified for parabolic flight. But the CSA had a condition attached to their invitation: they wanted the project to be a learning experience for a group of high school students. Richard had the choice of research project and high school.

The CSA wanted to create a program that would encourage high school students to pursue scientific careers, especially in space science research. Richard’s project would be test run for such a program.

Next to Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University campus, where Richard works, sits Armbrae Academy, a top-ranking independent school. Its proximity to Richard’s campus made it an obvious choice for the scientist/high school collaboration. Armbrae was pleased to participate and held a writing contest to determine the six 11th- and 12th-grade students who would be part of Richard’s team. Lesley Roberts was one of them.

In October 2003, the project members began holding team meetings to plan the experiment. The aircraft was scheduled to be in Halifax for two days late in March 2004, leaving six months to complete the following tasks:

1) Design the experiment;

2) Get the paperwork approved by Dalhousie University and the NRC to import and study live animals;

3) Acquire or construct necessary equipment;

4) Round up the required animals;

5) Test the equipment.

Richard decided to focus on the behaviour of exotic amphibians and reptiles based on limited data from frogs, lizards and one snake observed previously on parabolic flights performed in Japan and the USA. He wanted to know if animals that live underground (fossorial species) would react differently to microgravity than closely related taxa that live either above ground or in trees. Richard reasoned that fossorial species, which rarely surface, might never experience natural falling and may not be adapted to freefalling. He hypothesized that tree-dwelling (arboreal) taxa may be well adapted to microgravity simply because they occasionally fall when jumping from one surface to another, or when being chased by predators or competitors.

By begging, borrowing and, in a few cases, buying, the group managed to amass a menagerie of over 50 specimens from 23 species of exotic amphibians and reptiles. By March, fossorial limbless amphibians (caecilians), limbless lizards (amphisbaenian), ground dwelling skinks (limbed and limbless species), ground and treedwelling geckos, and snakes were on-hand. Several of these species are rare in captivity and required permits to enter Canada.

In order to document their behaviour in microgravity, cages were designed and built with dedicated lighting so that 20 animals at a time could be individually videotaped on the aircraft. In order to save money, the students bid for video cameras on eBay. The gambit worked with 22 cameras obtained and several thousand dollars saved. The NRC helped build racks to hold the containers and cameras in the aircraft.

Highly fossorial amphibians and reptiles showed relatively limited movement in freefall. Most limbed reptiles that were non-arboreal showed wild rolling and thrashing movements in weightlessness. In contrast, both arboreal and non-arboreal geckos showed wellcontrolled “skydiving” postures during the parabolas. (No animals were harmed during or at the end of the experiment.)

As a result of the study, more species of amphibians and reptiles have now been observed in microgravity than any other vertebrate class. And, thanks to this experiment, the patterns of behaviour exhibited by these organisms in weightlessness can be predicted on the basis of their normal ecology and taxonomic relationships.

Over the summer of 2004 the group penned the results, which were published in the journal Zoology, with each student credited as co-author.

While much was learned about the responses of amphibians and reptiles to microgravity, many lessons about conducting scientific research with a group of high school students were also learned. The students completed an in-depth, but anonymous, survey of their experience. That feedback was used to identify potential pitfalls in programs that involve high school students in original scientific research.

First, it is important to keep in mind the different goals of the collaborators. In this particular study, these goals ranged immensely. The CSA wanted to test and promote a program that would give high school students a chance to participate in real research. The scientist wanted to learn how a group of previously untested animals would react to their new environment. The motivations and goals of the students, however, were more widespread. They ranged from a desire to gain experience in the scientific world to the practical reasoning that participation in such a project would better one’s resume. For teachers interested in conducting a similar experiment, the motivations and goals of the students are important to keep in mind, as they help drive any project. If the students were not reminded of the project’s end goal and their own personal goals, their work ethic tended to falter.

Creating a team environment fostered motivation within the group and helped to maintain a strong work ethic. It also created a support network for the students, which was helpful for venting (when necessary) and for encouraging each other through difficult tasks.

The group discovered that a team of six is a productive size for a project with only one mentor. One obstacle that was encountered, however, was the uneven sharing of tasks. It was sometimes difficult to distribute the workload equally, especially when students were working on very different aspects of the project.

While competition within the group was agreed to be one of the more positive aspects of the project by the students, all felt that having the project culminate in a competitive setting, such as a science fair, was the wrong approach. As one student says, “Having a competitive aspect often shifts the focus to the competition and away from the science. So if the goal is introducing real science, I think competition is unnecessary in the traditional science fair way, though some sort of symposium or arena for presentation might be useful.”

Communication is essential to maintaining motivation in students and to ensure projects run smoothly. Not only was good communication necessary between the students and the scientist in this project, but also between the scientist and their high school teachers. Richard admits that as a university-level professor, he had little understanding of what knowledge the high school students had and how comfortable they were using it.

When presented with the questionnaire, one of the main complaints the students voiced was that the scientist was sometimes overbearing, and at times failed to adequately explain requests or concepts. This was not a conscious lack of explanation, but rather Richard sometimes assumed that the students understood the concepts he was referring to, when in actuality they did not. Such misunderstandings could have been circumvented if there had been more communication between the high school teachers and the scientist.

The mentor also needs to be made aware of the students’ workload and their upcoming stresses, notably, exams. For example, Richard was unaware of the exam period. When he attempted to move the project forward during that time period, he was frustrated by the experiment’s slow progress.

The next lesson learned (which could have prevented the above mentioned time conflicts) was to start the project earlier. The funding for the project, via a government grant, was not in place until the beginning of January 2004, even though the project began earlier because of the limited length of the school year and the preset dates for the flight.

As well, the students participating in the project were not selected until the beginning of the school year in which the project needed to be completed. A more time-efficient method of selection would be to choose the participating students at the end of the school year preceding the project. The planning could then take place over the summer.

Adequate financial support was a necessary factor in the success of the project (thank you, CSA!). Without funds in place, one can only plan, but not execute, research. Funding must be in place early in order to purchase materials for the project. Have all funds in place before beginning any project that involves students, if the project has a realistic hope of being accomplished within a single school year.

Everyone agrees that the project was a success. It’s rare that any scientific research goes from the “idea” stage to publication in less than two years. Perhaps our group was lucky. Given our success, we would like to see the CSA program offered to other scientists and high schools in Canada (unfortunately we have been told that the CSA does not currently have the funds to make this an ongoing program).

There is no reason why similar alliances between scientists and high schools couldn’t be established elsewhere, focusing on research that need not require large government contracts nor access to extremely expensive equipment (such as a jet plane) to succeed.

Lessons Learned

Start early
Unforeseen problems are the most common reasons why experiments fail. In order to avoid producing disenchanted students who will shy away from future research due to early failures, start the project as early as possible. Give plenty of time to deal with the unexpected.Consider having intermittent discussions with the students about the problems that might arise as one begins each new step. Encourage them to think ahead.

Have all money in place at the start
Budget out all imaginable costs, but still have a strategy in place for what will happen should the funds run out. Inadequate funding is another major reason why research fails.

Know the goals — both scientists and students
It is perfectly reasonable that students will have short term and more immediately self-serving goals for participating in research – such as a belief that it will help them get into college. This will affect their work schedule. For example, if getting into college is a greater motivation than collecting data, students might give completing college applications higher priority than data collection. Both sides need to know and accept the differences in motivation.

Accept the fact that some students work best near deadlines
Often the best students are the ones who do their homework the night before it is due. Such students, who have been successful in their academic career thus far, cannot be expected to change their work habits despite the open-endedness of the research project. The only way to avoid a crisis in timing is to make sure the students have many small subprojects along the way, each with clear and tight deadlines.

Student involvement should continue right to publication
Students graduate and move on. However, to fully understand how science works – that it’s much more than just data collecting—students should ideally have a chance to work on the manuscript production and submission, following the research through to publication. Students should be kept informed of the entire process, even if they are not actively involved in manuscript production.

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