Lake Ontario Shipboard Science: Day 2

July 10, 2018

“Basic research is what I am doing when I don’t know what I am doing.”

                      – Wernher von Braun, a 20th century German rocket scientist and aerospace engineer


Our first station started around 8:30 am after a wonderful night’s sleep and a filling breakfast (the cooks here work tirelessly to make sure we stay nourished.) We knew the first stop would take a bit more time as we were learning new protocols and delving into the research, not to mention putting the information we had learned the night before into action. Before our departure our trip leaders, Helen, Kristin, and Sandy, did an amazing job of preparing us for life aboard the ship as well as the research behind many of the tests we were running. Now it was up to us to carry out the data collection with integrity and precision and bring our samples to the lab to be analyzed. How hard could it be?

As it turns out, when you are accustomed to handmade sampling tools using recycled milk cartoons, duct tape, jars, and panty hose, using real EPA equipment is actually pretty complicated. As teachers we pride ourselves on coming up with alternative solutions to data collection issues–there isn’t much that an extra plastic fork or wad of duct tape can’t fix. But working with real equipment that was literally larger than life was a practice in both patience and discovery.

Collecting water from a depth of 1 meter using a simple pump and tow rope was a great way to start our day. These 23 liters of water would later be filtered and studied for phytoplankton density and populations. I advanced to using a 1.5 m diameter phytoplankton net that was familiar in practice but the size made it much more exciting. The Rosette sampler was an interesting way to gather a dozen samples from a variety of depths all while recording conductivity, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, and temperature at each collection site.

The real fun came in the form of a hand made PFAS collection system designed by a scientist at Clarkson University in New York. PFAS describe a group of manmade chemicals manufactured around the globe since the 1940’s that are showing up in our waterways. They come from a variety of sources including nonstick surfaces, water repellent fabrics, waxes, paints, and fire fighting foam. Their persistence in both the human body and environment are making them a particular concern for the EPA.

The gathering system was comprised of a PVC piping that stretched at least 3 meters long. The goal was to remove a liter of water from just below the water surface off the side of the boat. Sounds simple enough, but in a large research vessel one cannot simply reach over the boat and grab a sample. The contraption that had been created was both ingenious and frustratingly confusing. As we stood on the collection deck of the Lake Guardian, sun warming our life vests, we all offered up new ideas about how the contraption must work. “Maybe we have it upside down!” “It obviously needs some additional reinforcement.” “Wouldn’t it just be easier if we…”

After numerous consults to the written instructions, we finally figured out the collection process. The beauty of this process came in our “not-knowing” moments–the moments where we were stumped and used our previous knowledge or wonderings to come up with new questions and ideas. We recognize these moments  all too well in our own students, but getting to experience these moments as educators was a valuable reminder of the importance they hold. Being stumped, suggesting new solutions or outcomes, and trying to solve a problem is probably one of the best things that can happen to person trying to learn. It also helps us remember what it is like to be a confused, frustrated student so we can remember that, even as teachers, we still have much to learn and sometimes can use support in our learning.

With our limited access to internet, the Lake Guardian has gratefully reminded us of what it is like to not know. Our late night discussions of samples and hypothesis of what they mean cannot be met with an instant answer by opening up our computers and Googling away. We need to think, to contemplate, to reason–as a team.

This was my a-ha moment. Creating genuine experiences for my students to patiently reason and discuss their findings, to sweat it a little before they find out if they were “right” (a frustrating question for science teachers everywhere), is going to be my focus for the upcoming school year. Technology has graced us with access to information that our ancestors would have never believed imaginable. But finding value in reasoning, discussion, and civil discourse is at the very heart of science education.


The A-Team in our safety gear–hard hats, steel toed boots, and life vests.


Sending down the phytoplankton net for some sampling on Tuesday afternoon.


The benthic sled being deployed to collect ground floor sediments.


Thanks to the benthic sled, we collected several hundred quagga mussels to analyze for mercury levels in soft tissue.


One of the Lake Guardian marine techs, Katherine, is guiding the spider core into the water.


The shucking and organizing our the quagga mussels is a tedious but important task.


Co-written by Ariel Christofferson and Carly Ziegler