Citizen Science

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Who does science?  What is a scientist?  What does a scientist look like?

These are common questions we often ask our students at the start of the year – these prompts can get kids thinking about their perceptions of science and can be quite revealing. Often the case is that kids have an image of someone like Bill Nye in their minds – white men in lab coats, doing complicated experiments in labs. Many of our students don’t see themselves as having the skills required to participate in authentic scientific research. Additionally, we often find ourselves as teachers feeling ill-equipped to undertake research without the technology, lab resources and other specialized equipment that our schools often lack. A different approach to scientific research, undertaken by citizens, is crucial for our students, communities and the larger society as we take on the global challenges we all face right now.

Throughout the history of the world, most science has been done by regular people as they observe, question, try out ideas and make mistakes that lead to discoveries. We want to show students that science is something they can participate in as interested, concerned, autonomous thinkers and citizens. In order to do this effectively, we need to provide our students with authentic learning opportunities in our local school environments. When students have the chance to study real problems in their own communities, generate solutions and present them to a real audience, we are putting science back into their hands and empowering them to become agents for change.

Chromatography

The farmers in the chinampas are facing one of these very real problems in their community and we had the opportunity to learn the very accessible technique that REDES is using to help them address it: chromatography.

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Jamie, Destiny and Jessica drying the soil.

The prevalence of pollutants in the chinampas adversely affects the quality of the soil and the health of the plants grown there.  Chromatography makes it possible for the farmers to see a snapshot of the soil condition in their own chinampas and determine what they can do to improve it.

To begin, several soil samples are collected from different areas in an individual farmer’s chinampa using small gardening shovels.  The soil samples are then spread into thin layers on butcher paper and left to dry for a day or two.

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Katie grinding the soil.

Next, each sample is sieved and ground to a fine dust using a mortar and pestle.  The goal of this grinding is to ensure adequate mixing during the following step of the process, in which the soil is mixed with sodium hydroxide.  The solution is left to sit and mixed three times over the course of 8 hours.

In the meantime, filter paper is prepared to receive the sample, making up both the medium for exposure and the wick to transfer the solution to the medium.  The wick is placed in a small amount of silver nitrate that is absorbed into the circle-shaped filter.

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Jessie prepares the filter paper and wick.

When the soil solution is ready, a small amount is extracted with a syringe and placed in a dish.  The solution is then transferred to the filter paper in the same way as the silver nitrate.  Then, all that’s left to do is wait.  Over the next two weeks, a pattern will develop (see “Field Protocols” post) that can be interpreted to understand the quality of the soil in that particular location.

Citizen Science

What makes the chromatography technique so exciting is that it has the potential to be an empowering tool for farmers, putting science into their own hands.

As far as testing techniques go it is simple, requiring a minimal amount of affordable components: two chemical solutions, filter paper, a couple of petri dishes (or even bottle caps!), and a syringe.  It is also a qualitative measurement – the process yields an interpretable image that farmers can compare against other chroma to gauge the relative health of their soil and then make decisions based on these results.  This format is more accessible than quantitative soil data that requires formal training and prior knowledge to interpret.

When we were performing the technique ourselves many of us had questions about the very specific mixing technique – “Spin the solution 6 times to the left and 6 times to the right.  Do this 6 times”.  Yolo, the scientist who trained us in this process, explained to us that this protocol serves a number of purposes that exemplify how accessible this process is.  Not only does this protocol ensure adequate mixing without lab equipment, it also standardizes the process and reduces field variables.  Most importantly, it’s easy to remember.

Chromatography can bring farmers into a true scientific community.  While it has been proven to be an effective way to demonstrate soil health, the chromatography technique is burgeoning and still not fully understood.  Yolo has also been working to increase the base of knowledge of the underlying meaning of the chromatography images in the form of a public database. As farmers perform this technique for their own chinampa, they can utilize this database as a resource for interpreting their chromatography and can also submit their own results.  

The farmers in the chinampas are facing a crisis.  Together, with the researchers at REDES they are taking this on using science that is accessible and immediately useful.  This should inspire all of us, teachers and students, that it is citizens who are solving the problems facing our society.  In the face of seemingly insurmountable environmental challenges, we can all use science to be a part of the solution.

For now,

Jessie, Jamie, and Katie

Hasta Luego

After a week of hard work and learning in the field our last day was quickly approaching. We spent Friday morning looking at the data we had been collecting all week.   This was really important in order to bring our work back around full circle. The morning began with an awesome breakfast cooked by the wonderful staff at Casa Xitla and then we got to work.  

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Erica, Jessica, Kristi, Andy, Terry, Erick, and Christina looking at the footage from their cameras they set up at the beginning of the week. 

We broke into groups and began analyzing the data we had spent the week collecting. From there we each needed to try to make some sense and draw some conclusions from the various graphs that were generated from the data.  After all the smaller groups were done we came back together as a larger group to look at the bigger picture.

 

The data did confirm some of what we had been talking about during the week.  For one, the chinampas that were sinking and more saturated had a much higher salinity because the soil was not being used and it was very compact. Another was that because the canals had very little movement, or flow to them, the oxygen levels were low to non-existent which creates a problem in decomposing plants allowing for the bad bacteria to take over to do the job.  The problem is that the aquifer that supplies most of Mexico City with water is being depleted and so the chinampas are sinking and thus less usable. It is a cycle. The less you use them the more unusable they become and the less flow in the canals causing the growth of invasive plant species and a decline in sunlight and oxygen reaching the aquatic life. This causes the water quality in the canals to drop.  Overall, much of our purpose was to help collect data to begin to develop a water quality index for the chinampas and to bring about awareness of climate change and preservation of water. Another interesting piece of data that was found were the amount of cladocerans (a type of zooplankton) that were found in the canals. The axolotl eats the cladocerons, so in retrospect this is good news in terms of the axolotl!

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Various zooplankton under a microscope.

Once the work was completed, it was time to explore. Part of the experience of going to any country is seeing and interacting with the culture.  We took a ride to city of Coyoacan and got to see the beautiful markets, streets, and architecture of the city. First stop was ice cream! I stuck with the traditional flavor of blueberry however others tried such flavors as avocado, amaretto, sweet corn, arroz con leche, and tequila. From here we decided to go to the marketplace, which was beautiful, to do some shopping.  Various things bought were magnets, handmade soaps, necklaces, bracelets, and alebrijes (as seen in Coco!).

We ended the evening with the team eating a delicious dinner at Centanario 107 in Coyoacon followed by the infamous tequila infused churros that Rhonda had been raving about. We went the entire week without much rain at all, but as we finished our churros, it began to pour. Kind of poetic I guess? We all piled into the van soaking wet with our stomachs full, our hearts happy and most importantly our new gifts from Elsa. Whether we had just completed our first year of teaching or we had been in the classroom for 20+ years I think it’s safe to say we all learned something from everyone this week. We have all made it back safely to our homes now with lots of memories, and even more mosquito bites!

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Adios Mexico City, see you soon!

Destiny & Heather

Cultivating a Mindset of Conservation By Jessica Lin

Today my eyes were opened to the importance of the rich earth in the chinampas, and the axolotl to the ecosystem and Mexico City’s culture. It was incredible to hear and see the hard work, dedication, and passion the researchers here have about their work. After the presentation, we talked about the future of the chinampas, and learned that the government recently allowed the city’s water to be privatized, and allowed for uncontrolled oil drilling and fracking in the area.

Hearing this information shocked me. Why would a city encourage environmentally degrading practices when the city is already sinking? It was disheartening to hear and learn about the government’s plan, and the lack of care for something so core to Mexico City’s environment and culture.

Afterwards, I carried a heavy sense of defeat. This research feels like an uphill battle against the direction Mexico City is heading.

I then realized I can leave this trip with one of two attitudes: 1. I can leave with a sense of defeat, with a belief that future generations will never know of wild axolotl and of the beautiful chinampas, or 2. I can move towards what breaks my heart, and use my skills, knowledge, and privilege to do all I can to support this cause.

And that’s the beauty of education. Often times people don’t recognize the local and global consequences of their actions. If I can get 180 students to critically think about how their choices and actions impact the environment, these future world changers can use their gifts and talents to protect the Earth.

That’s exactly what the local researchers here do. Elsa, Erick, Ericka, and Yolo, are the heroes that don’t wear capes. Seeing the never-ending time and energy that they all have spent to conduct research, work with farmers, and patiently guide this Earthwatch team has been a tremendous encouragement. They have shown me that fighting this uphill battle to protect the environment is a battle worth fightinhg.Today my eyes were opened to the importance of the rich earth in the chinampas, and the axolotl to the ecosystem and Mexico City’s culture. It was incredible to hear and see the hard work, dedication, and passion the researchers here have about their work. After the presentation, we talked about the future of the chinampas, and learned that the government recently allowed the city’s water to be privatized, and allowed for uncontrolled oil drilling and fracking in the area.

Hearing this information shocked me. Why would a city encourage environmentally degrading practices when the city is already sinking? It was disheartening to hear and learn about the government’s plan, and the lack of care for something so core to Mexico City’s environment and culture.

Afterwards, I carried a heavy sense of defeat. This research feels like an uphill battle against the direction Mexico City is heading.

I then realized I can leave this trip with one of two attitudes: 1. I can leave with a sense of defeat, with a belief that future generations will never know of wild axolotl and beautiful chinampas, or 2. I can move towards what breaks my heart, and use my skills, knowledge, and privilege to do all I can to support this cause.

And that’s the beauty of education. Oftentimes people don’t recognize the local and global consequences of their actions. If I can get 180 students to critically think about how their choices and actions impact the environment, these future world changers can use their gifts and talents to protect the Earth.

That’s exactly what the local researchers here do. Elsa, Eric, Erica, and Yolo, are the heroes that don’t wear capes. Seeing the never-ending time and energy that they all have spent to conduct research, work with farmers, and patiently guide this Earthwatch team has been a tremendous encouragement. They have shown me that fighting this uphill battle to protect the environment is a battle worth fighting.

Field Protocols

Our EarthWatch Team has now spent three days collecting data. We all took turns dangling precariously over the canal to gather samples, braved the bugs to walk transects, and spent many long minutes waiting for technology and the processing of samples in order to contribute to an ever-growing body of scientific knowledge. The data that we have collected will serve to inform the farmers, scientists, and REDES about best practices for sustainably managing agriculture on the chinampas near Xochomilco. There are three tenets of sustainability: environment conservation, human and social development, and economic growth. Each of these must be balanced in order to achieve true sustainability. Farming on the chinampas is a unique technique, which when done traditionally, can achieve all three. The traditional methods of farming on the chinampas are environmentally preservative (using natural organic soil and clearing water canals of sediments along with other ecosystem services); preserve history, culture and livelihoods (human) and can provide food and income for the local farmers. It is therefore critical that this method of subsistence farming be maintained.

As part of this of our work, a number of field sampling techniques have been used to collect critical data, which can be used to monitor the health of the local chinampas in the wider Xochimilco region and gain insight into how they can best be managed to achieve sustainability.  Luckily, the EarthWatch super team has been on-hand to risk life and limb to gather essential data. The following is a summary of the methods that have been used.

EXPERIMENTAL METHODS:

The first protocol was setting up camera traps (two on each chinampa) to capture images of any mammals and birds that were present in the area. This was done to augment the already existing species index list that documents the biodiversity of the wetlands of San Gregorio and the larger area of Xochimilco.

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Erick and Rhonda setting up the camera traps

The axolotl (Mexican salamander) is a critically endangered species (IUCN) and also an indicator species. This means that is is able to provide scientists, researchers, and citizens with a good picture of the health of the ecosystem in the chinampas. In an on-going effort by REDES to monitor this species, six axolotl traps were set in each chinampa. The traps were loaded with bait in the form of Cheetos, tilapia fish and tortillas. These trap the fish which serve as bait for the axolotl (‘bait for the bait’). By trapping the axolotl (if we do), we can get an idea of the size of the population, and the health of the individuals that have been captured. As of now, we have not yet caught one. There have been beetles, snakes, and small fish, but no axolotl. Fingers cross that tomorrow we get lucky!

Soil collection is a critical exercise for assessing the health of the soil, available nutrients and other quality indicators. Ten soil samples were taken along transects on 2 chinampas. The soil samples were dried, sieved, weighed and placed into a solution of sodium and hydroxide and then placed on filter papers impregnated with silver nitrate. This process separates the soil organic matter and creates a visual of the soil organic composition is a process known as soil chromatography. This is a very informative indicator for the farmers on how to manage the practice and how to preserve soil quality.

Water quality sampling was done in the canals along the chinampas. Six sample points were chosen at one chinampa (Crescencio’s) and 8 sample points at the other (Luis’). The width and depth of the canal at the sample points were measured and the following quality indicators were determined using a probe:

  • pH
  • Dissolved Oxygen
  • Turbidity
  • Temperature
  • Salinity
  • Conductivity
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Elsa demonstrates how to use the Hanna probe

Water quality is particularly important to the health of the ecosystem and the presence of species such as the axolotl. Temperature and dissolved oxygen were two of the indicators which can directly affect the population of the axolotl. As cold-blooded amphibians, it is harder for them to adjust to higher temperatures. The absence of the axolotl in the traps thus far is an indication of a changing our changing environment.

Additionally, water samples were extracted and tested for bacterial composition. This includes the presence of healthy bacteria and harmful ones such as E. coli and fecal coliform. The harmful bacteria can represent a degradation of the ecosystem or even be harmful to the axolotl.

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Destiny testing for bacteria

The final field test thus far is the sampling of phytoplankton and zooplankton. This was done at the same points as the water quality tests.  Samples were collected by filtering ten buckets of water through a net and strainer for the zooplankton and filtering one bucket for the phytoplankton. The zooplankton was placed in a specimen bottle with formaldehyde and the phytoplankton was placed in another bottle with Lugol’s solution (Iodine). Zooplankton constitute a major portion of the axolotl’s’ diet, so their presence/distribution can indicate where axolotl’s might be. Phytoplankton samples were done to look for the presence of cyanobacteria which release toxins that are harmful to the axolotl. Both these samples will be processed on Thursday and data collection will culminate on Friday.

Our team has really enjoyed our time in field and we have all learned so much in such a short time. Here are a few highlights from our super-hero colleagues:

Heather: It was so helpful to find out about the different water quality indicators form Elsa and what they meant. It was also great to see the soil processing from start to finish: from digging it out of the ground to seeing the organic matter on the chromatography paper.

Jamie: It was great using the Hanna probe for testing the water quality. It was interesting to pull off the cover and see the multiple probes that could indicate the health of the water and provide instant data that quickly showed trends.

Katie: It was great to see a qualitative analysis of the soil in the form of the visual chromatographs instead of just numbers. It is also much more useful an meaningful to the farmers who rely heavily on the research.

Rhonda: I loved the simplicity of the turbidity test. It was very straightforward. It was also easy to see errors in the field. For example, one particular part of the canal had very high turbidity which was not consistent with the other sampling points. The reason was that the water had just been stirred up by a previous group during testing. This demonstrates how important  fieldnotes are in identifying data errors.

We are looking forwarded to accomplishing and learning more in the coming days!

Signing off,

Kristi and Marissa

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Kristi and Marissa on the canoa!

A brief history of CDMX’s wetland agriculture by Terry Beasley

Hello! We are really enjoying our time in beautiful Mexico City and learning so much every day.

For my blog entry, I’d like to provide some background information about the history and culture in the chinampas as well as the present day challenges these important wetland farms face.

In order to understand the chinampas, you need to know the history of Mexico City. Mexico City wasn’t always Mexico City. Built on a lake in the basin of Mexico Valley by the Aztecs thousands of years ago, present day Mexico City was known as Tenochititlan by the people who built it. The innovative Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was comprised entirely of chinampas, small plots of land surrounded by man made canals that the Aztecs used to live and farm. During the 13th century the chinampas flourished, producing large amounts of crops that included corn, beans, and zucchini. By the early 16th century, there were 100,000 chinampas with 3-10 occupants on each.

When the Spaniards arrived in the 15th century, the area around the chinampas began to change. The Spaniards introduced new plants, pets, grains, and European farming technologies that changed the culture of Tenochititlan (including its name which was changed, by the Spaniards, to Mexico City).

Flash forward to today: due to urbanization, pollution, and overpopulation, the chinampas and the animals that reside on them are no longer thriving. In fact, geographically the chinampas make up only a small portion of sprawling Mexico City. Due to earthquakes and trouble caused by sinking land, many chinampas have been abandoned. Despite being named as protected land, the chinampas have proven difficult to defend.

That’s where our work with R.E.D.E.S. comes in. R.E.D.E.S. is an ecological organization that is connecting farmers with initiatives to protect the chinampas, the traditional agricultural practices used on them, and restore the local ecology. This week we will be working with R.E.D.E.S. and their amazing team to test soil, water, and (fingers crossed) locate the elusive and critically endangered Axolotl salamander. We can’t wait to start this incredibly important work!

Ajolote/Axolotl

Within minutes of departing from Mexico City’s airport, I learned two things about the Axolotl. The first was not a surprise; Axolotl is not pronounced “AXE-uh-LOT-ul,” as many English speakers will utter upon arrival. Secondly, I learned that both travelers and locals alike have a deep, perhaps mystical fascination with the strange, yet strangely adorable salamander, which owes its peculiar look in part to a peculiar evolutionary trait; Axolotls remain in an underdeveloped, larval stage even as they reach sexual maturity, a developmental mcharacteristic known as “Neoteny.” They have lidless eyes, big round faces that seem to lack character while also presenting a characeteristically cartoonish smile to the world which begs us to anthropomorphize them. The Ajolote is, at once, alien and yet also familiar to all. (Julio Cortazar captured the fascination one feels beholding the salamander in “The Axolotl” in 1956.)

A steep decline in the number of sightings in recent years in Xochimilco casts a gloomy feeling about the health of the waterways, as they are now rarely found in the research traps set around the San Gregorio Atlapulco Chinampas. In 2016, the REDES team found two and have not found a single one since, despite a creative array baiting strategies, including the Cheetos shown below.

The prospect of seeing a single Axolotl would bring great joy to our expedition, but what’s sitting with me is how the fascination about the Axolotl endures despite the great ecological, social, and political difficulties that the city’s waterways face. Talking about the Ajolotes seems to cheer everyone up, inspiring a hopeful tune, yet also quietly reminding one that as humans continue to realize the degradation of our natural environments too late, Axolotls, like so many other natural wonders, may quietly transition from their ancient ecological niches, into the realm of myth.

Day One

When I saw the agenda last night at our meeting, I knew the week would be tough, but I also didn’t realize how gratifying and rewarding it would be–and how much fun it is to learn something new!  I was also humbled by mistakes and reminded of just how common it is to mess up when doing something for the first time.  We had some miscalculations and trouble with consistency on sampling methods, and after fixing them, Katie vocalized to me that is was a good reminder as a teacher to remember how difficult it is for our students to learn something new and to keep reminding them–and ourselves–that mistakes and clarifications, and sometimes even do-overs, are just a part of science, and of life.  Such a great reminder for us as scientists and educators!  I was also reminded of the value of teamwork and of checking each other for accuracy.  But also the importance of doing it in good spirit and in the interest of the project, rather than for ego.  We need to be intentional as teachers about allowing for true learning to occur, which means mistakes have to be valued and appreciated, and that students have to be intentionally taught to work in groups and to see their value.  Another thing that really struck me today was the sheer amount of problem solving that was needed in order to accomplish the tasks we were given.  Also a critical skill that has to be taught, practiced, and valued.

I was really impressed today with our group and I know that I have heard others mention this as well.  We are all clearly dedicated to our passion of education and we seem to be here for similar purposes, which has allowed us to bond extremely quickly and quite well.  I am inspired by everyone’s experiences globally and locally and learn something new from almost each one of them every time I interact.  I have been on several teacher focused projects and this is honestly one of the best groups I have even been with—I feel blessed by that.  In addition, Erick and Elsa could not be more amazing.  They are passionate about their work, both with the environment and with educators, and that passion truly comes through with each conversation or presentation. Tonight we had been in the field working all day and weren’t really looking forward to a lecture prior to dinner, but they were so interesting and inspiring and caused us to ask so many questions, that the session ran well into the hour allocated for dinner.  The crazy thing is that no one seemed to mind.  They both have big hearts and a wonderful sense of humor.  I am already grateful for the short amount of time I have had to interact with them and learn from them. In addition, all of the supporting members of our project today were outstanding.  From the farmers to the driver to the research assistants.  All of them radiated kindness and passion for what they do and for our wanting to be part of it.  Just amazing.  I am so honored to be part of this journey.

Funny things from today:

  1.  Building a bridge with logs to get to a tree on the other side of a flooded and abandoned greenhouse in order to install a camera, and then seeing Erick almost fall in the water.
  2. Renaming Jamie as “Buzz Lightyear” because of his adorable, tiny binoculars that he used in the van on the way to the chinampa.
  3. Asking Marissa to take my picture and then turning to see that she didn’t have the camera pointed in my direction at all.
  4. Sheer excitement radiating from my body when I realized I got to have coffee and sift through dirt during our lecture both at the same time.

A few thoughts from my esteemed colleagues:

Destiny expressed her absolute love of the wetlands that that she enjoyed seeing the parallels between the wetlands here and the wetlands back home in New Orleans.  She is amazed by the vast biodiversity that exists there as well.  Her favorite part of the work today was the point at which we actually began to do the work and collect the data.

Kristi is impressed by the indigenous agricultural practices that goes back 4000 years and expressed her surprise at how that the knowledge has been passed down from generations for so long.  She contrasted that to her experience in Peru earlier this summer in Peru and noted that the knowledge of their terrace system hasn’t been passed down from generation to generation and that knowledge hasn’t been preserved.  It is such a shame to see cultures losing tradition, as well as best ecological practices.

Marissa absolutely loved the Chapines, which happily reminded her of brownies, and how they use the sediment from the canal to create them, which clears the channel for the water, allows for use of the richest organic soil, and prevents weeds naturally and lessens or eliminates the use of pesticides.  She expressed that this seems so advanced in its way of thinking, but is commonly overlooked or disregarded.