The Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, supports a rich diversity of plant and animal life. But pollution and poor water quality threaten those ecosystems and have a significant impact on the 17 million people who live in the Chesapeake watershed. The University of Maryland is betting that bringing the waterways and beaches of the Chesapeake Bay directly to students will produce citizens who understand how scientific research can help them take better care of their environment.
The long-time HHMI grantee will use a portion of its new $1.5 million grant to partner with the nonprofit MDBio Foundation to bring its mobile laboratory to high schools throughout the state for one-week visits. When the 18-wheeled biotechnology lab rolls up to the schools, it will bring with it equipment to test water samples for microorganisms that indicate fecal contamination. Students will isolate and quantify bacterial strains from samples collected from their own neighborhoods and from the bay and its associated waterways. Undergraduates at Maryland will then apply recombinant DNA and bioinformatics methods to identify the specific bacterial strains. This research will allow them to use the laboratory and data analysis methods they have learned in their courses for a real-world purpose. A project website will let students compare their findings with those of other students and gain a broader view of water quality in Maryland.
Through the results of their work in the mobile laboratory and related classroom lessons on watershed ecology, students will learn about the effects of the bay’s health on its surrounding communities and how their own behavior influences the health of the bay. “The take-home message,” says Norma Allewell, dean of the college of chemical and life sciences, “is that human activities often affect the environment in ways that impact human health.”
Testing local waters with the same techniques used by official monitoring agencies lets students see firsthand the practical applications of science, Allewell says. When students discover for themselves what lurks in the waters that their families depend on for food, work, and play, their perceptions of the environment may be transformed. “We hope to energize students to save the planet,” she concludes.