Urban wetland fosters an early appreciation for science, nature

Image of urban wetland in Phoenix, AZ.

Wading around in the hot sun through a wastewater treatment plant doesn’t rank too highly with most folks, but for a team of young ecologists, it’s all part of the research experience.

For the past few years, ASU has been conducting studies at the Tres Rios wetlands, a facility constructed by the City of Phoenix as an alternative to traditional wastewater treatment. Researchers want to know how successfully these man-made wetlands provide ecosystem services like wildlife habitat and water treatment in an arid landscape.

Dan Childers is director of Central Arizona – Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) at Arizona State University and faculty researcher for the Tres Rios project. He says the urban location provides a unique setting for learning wetlands ecology.

Making learning fun

One goal of this research initiative is providing environmental education to high school and college students. “In this project we’ve got students doing both lab work and field work, and that is pretty unusual,” Childers says.

In June, Ariah Evans, Aunese Evans, and Daniel Loza joined Childers and ASU’s Wetland Ecosystem Ecology Lab (WEEL) group to work on a plant decomposition study at Tres Rios. As part of their work, they measured greenhouse gas emissions, plant growth, and water evaporation.

The three students come from two Phoenix high schools and are part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Assistantships for High School Students (RAHSS) program. The assistantships encourage underrepresented students, including women, to participate in scientific research.

“I liked doing the measuring of the biomass because you can see how fast the plants are going to grow and how thick they can become before they actually start thatching, which means they just fall over because they can’t support themselves anymore,” Loza says. He learned the term “thatching” by examining the plants in the field.

All the students agree that learning in the field and the lab is better than reading a book.

“A book may say a plant grows seven feet tall, but you’re not going to know that until you’re out there and like, ‘oh my gosh that plant is so tall!’” Ariah says.

Her sister Aunese agrees. “It’s more interesting, and you actually want to get involved and learn more.”

Part of being a student researcher is also being prepared for the unexpected.

“There’s all sorts of surprises when we’re out in the field, like when you’re measuring plants and find a nest with three baby birds in it or when you have to rescue a fish that’s been flopping around on the marsh,” Childers says. “A book wouldn’t have these experiences.”

Science isn't just about white lab coats

Childers has observed the young students changing throughout the research process.

“The most significant change I’ve noticed is when they first showed up here, I saw a lot of glazed looks on their faces,” he says. “And those glazed faces are gone.”

The students have noticed a change too.

Aunese is more aware of the environment, and Ariah no longer thinks science is dull.

“In grade school I thought science was really boring, but now it’s more interesting,” Ariah says. “It’s different than what you would think science would be.”

Loza recognizes the hard work he’s put in during the past two months.

“You get to learn how to form your research question – your thesis – and be able to set up your research, get the information, and actually look at how the results vary through time,” he says. “The part I like the most is when you get to see the results and go ‘there’s my work’ and being able to accomplish something.”

Creating a cycle of mentorship

It’s not just the high school students who are learning new skills. The project creates an opportunity for innovative student and peer mentoring as well. Two undergraduate students assisting the Tres Rios research are funded through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

Chris Sanchez, a junior at the University of Miami studying anthropology and environmental sciences, says he can better prepare the high school students because he participated in the RAHSS program when he was in high school.

“I can anticipate when the students would have questions and I can explain concepts to them in a way that would make sense to a high school mind,” Sanchez says.

Sanchez mentors the students with another undergraduate, Nich Weller, a senior in ASU’s School of Sustainability studying urban ecosystems. Weller says there is constant collaboration with the high school students.

“They always have questions for us, and oftentimes we have questions for them,” Weller adds. “It’s sort of ad hoc learning as you go.”

The two coordinate with the Tres Rios project manager at the City of Phoenix to schedule their field days and obtain data pertinent to their individual experimental studies. Weller coordinates field trip volunteers and Sanchez is working on a water budget for the wetlands. Sanchez has also presented about the Tres Rios project to high school biology teachers. Both Weller and Sanchez hope to use these skills in graduate school.

“I think the most valuable thing I have learned is how to scale knowledge,” Sanchez says. “How to take something that you’ve read an entire book on and spent three weeks reading the instructional materials on, and how to digest that and spit it out at high school level in 30 minutes during a lab briefing.”

One of five graduate researchers in the WEEL lab, Jorge Ramos is a past participant in the Ecological Society of America’s Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity, and Sustainability (SEEDS) program. He guides not only the high school students, but the undergraduate students as well. He says he continues to mentor so that other students get the experience he had while in SEEDS.

“It’s always good to give back,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my mentors.”

Preparing for a future in science

Experiences like the Tres Rios project inspire future scientists and biologists and lay a foundation for creating a sustainable society.

“I think it’s important to have access to environmental education for people who are interested in learning about how natural systems function, how we use natural systems, and how we live with natural systems,” Weller says. “Especially with sustainability, you may learn aspects of ecological systems that are applicable to other systems.”

In the end, Childers hopes that the Tres Rios research gives all the students a learning experience that can’t compare to others.

“I think, fundamentally, what I would like to know is that the process of what we went through this summer has given them an opportunity to think a little more critically and creatively on their own and recognize there’s a big picture to everything,” he says.

Because of the Tres Rios project, Aunese, Ariah, and Daniel all hope to continue their science education and possibly return to the wetlands this fall. Sanchez and Weller say they will bring their expertise to graduate school in the near future and all researchers are excited to have a complete year of data for Tres Rios.

Which is to say, there will be more wastewater wading in these students’ futures. And they’re looking forward to it.

Natalie Muilenberg, nmuilenb@asu.edu
Global Institute of Sustainability