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Structures of Life Extension: Learning about Invasive Species through Art and Science

FOSS Newsletter Staff, Staff Members
March 06, 2014 | Program News

Structures of Life Extension: Learning about Invasive Species through Art and Science
Stone Soup comic strip

Figure 1: STONE SOUP © Jan Eliot. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

In a wonderful blend of art and science, nationally syndicated Stone Soup creator Jan Eliot depicts her character Alix, a young girl and "budding" scientist, innocently releasing an invasive crayfish into the wild. The comic strip series recently featured in a Science News article discusses the consequences of releasing nonnative organisms on the fragile balance between organisms in the environment (Figure 1). The main characters include Alix, a red swamp crayfish native to Louisiana named Pinchy, her science teacher Erma, and Alix's grandma. The story follows these characters from when Alix finds a crayfish in a lake during a camping trip, brings it home to raise in her family's bathtub, and names it Pinchy, only to experience that she could not keep Pinchy in her bathtub indefinitely. Thinking that it was the right thing to do, Alix and her grandma innocently released Pinchy into their neighborhood stream where Pinchy becomes invasive, so Erma the science teacher helps Alix and her grandma learn an important lesson on the impacts of releasing invasive species.

Students observing an organism

Students in Jennifer England's fourth-grade science class at Franklin Elementary School, Corvallis, Oregon, inquire and research the invasive potential of organisms used in their classrooms as a learning and decision-making extension to the FOSS Structures of Life Module.

The dilemma on what to do with classroom pets or organisms after completing their use in activities or when the school year recesses are familiar experiences among teachers in many classrooms, including those who use the Meet the Crayfish activity in the FOSS Structures of Life Module. Meet the Crayfish is an engaging and effective investigation that connects students to the structures, functions, and behaviors of crayfish and the environments they prefer. Learning with live organisms, such as the crayfish (also called the crawdad), are vital to helping students understand science, and stimulating inquiry to the world outside of the traditional classroom. Yet, after the lesson, teachers must decide what to do with the organisms, and it is important that they have institutional support and options to make informed decisions.

Schools as a Pathway for Invasive Species?

The strip's storyline is built around a binational (United States and Canada) study led by the Oregon Sea Grant College Program on classroom activities and the release of living science projects and pets into the wild as potential sources of invasive species. Presented at the Ecological Science Society of America's annual meeting in 2012, the study surveyed more than 2,000 U.S. and Canadian teachers and found that at least one out of four teachers who have live plants and animals in their class eventually release them into the wild (see Figure 2). The study highlights how valuable classroom organisms are, but also the dilemma on what to do with the organisms when the investigation ends.

Chart: What happens to classroom plants and animals?

Figure 2: The 2012 Oregon Sea Grant/Oregon State University led study found that at least one out of every four teachers with live plants and animals in their classroom eventually release them outdoors. If organisms are given to students, teachers can utilize a Pledge Form where teachers, students, and parents pledge to ensure proper care for and disposition of classroom pets.

What Are the Impacts of Invasive Species?

It may seem unrealistic that one crayfish can decimate an entire native crayfish population in a creek, like Pinchy did in the story. Yet, in reality, it isn't much of a stretch. Classroom pet releases in the real world can cause damaging effects as seen in the storyline of Jan Eliot's comic. Preventing further damages from invasive species can lead to expensive control; for example, removing Rusty Crayfish from five small ponds in Wyoming cost more than $34,000 in 2008. Once released into the wild, crayfish are especially hard to control due to their small size, robust reproductive potential, and resilience. The comic strip characters found that the crawdad was actually a "crawmom" and was pregnant, so Pinchy could have made an even larger impact in the creek if she had a chance to release her eggs. Notably, female crayfish can store sperm after mating for a substantially long time, so even if only one female is introduced there is still potential of reproduction. When her eggs are ready, a female can release 200–800 fertilized eggs per brood, potentially resulting in an infestation. Oftentimes nonnative crayfish invasions become so extensive that the costs to control them would be prohibitive and would have collateral harm to native organisms. Such is the case in Arizona, many parts of the west coast, the Southwest, the Great Lakes, and the Northwest. In California, most of the populations of native crayfish have been decimated by nonnative species.

The release of classroom pets and living science projects is an emerging issue. Although the comic characters Alix and her grandmother initially felt it is the right thing to do, they, along with us, learn that releasing pets can cause harm to other species and even cause harm to the released organism. Teachers should be aware that many common aquatic plants and animals can become invasive when released into the wild. Even if the plant or animal is native to the region, it may carry diseases and should never be released. Remember, don't let it loose!

Potential negative effects of invasive species include:

  • degradation of aquatic habitats
  • competition with desirable native species
  • biodiversity decrease
  • alteration of food chains
  • introduction of diseases
  • limitation of recreation
  • damage of infrastructure; and
  • contamination of water resources.

Deriving Solutions in the Classroom

Student-created comic strip

Click image to view larger version.

Figure 3: Students in Heidi Lent's Warrenton Middle School class demonstrated their knowledge of invasive species by creating a comic strip. How does the outcome of the student's comic show the level of learning achieved, and create an opportunity for feedback?

Since many classrooms use live organisms to enrich lessons and activities, teachers and families have a crucial role in raising awareness about the impacts of invasive species and actions that can be taken to prevent their spread. FOSS teachers can gain ideas on learning extensions for integrating invasive species into their classroom activities (including FOSS) through multiple avenues. One example is the Watershed and Invasive Species Education (WISE) teachers professional development program of Oregon, Washington, USC and California Sea Grant College Programs. WISE provides teachers with numerous resources to aid in science learning extensions and community stewardship. WISE uses invasive species and watershed themes to work with their students and institutions in deriving solutions on the disposition of live organisms in the classroom activities. The WISE Pledge Form for teachers, students, and parents to sign encourages proper care for and disposition of classroom organisms. The WISE program has a beta-version toolkit that teachers can use to supplement their classroom learning using invasive species education through lesson activities and other materials. Heidi Lent, a teacher at Warrenton Middle School in Oregon, recently tested a WISE lesson plan activity developed by Linda Chilton at the University of Southern California Sea Grant, using the recent Stone Soup comic series (see item 4 in "Useful Resources" on this page). Lent's students had already researched and written a five-paragraph essay about invasive species, so they were able to apply the knowledge they had learned to Jan Eliot's Stone Soup comic series on the topic. Through this activity, Lent's students integrated the science they learned about invasive species into a cartoon strip (see figure 3 on p. 11).

The issue of invasive crayfish species and their potential release from schools was a theme on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) through an Oregon Field Guide documentary "Classroom Culprits" that was aired in 2011. The documentary shows scientists, educators, and students discussing the appearance of the rusty crayfish, native to the lower Ohio River and was discovered for the first time in water bodies west of the Rocky Mountains. Classroom releases were determined to be the source of these crayfish.

Jan Eliot's comic provides FOSS teachers with a unique new learning extension for the FOSS curriculum where students can learn through the comic strip and an accompanying lesson plan that incorporates art, science, and decision-making. Based off of Eliot's own interest in ecology and marine biology, Alix is a young biologist-in-the-making whom many students will be able to relate to. Children her age will take from the story a sense of delight and new knowledge that they didn't already have about crayfish and invasive species in general. By incorporating the WISE lesson plan using Jan Eliot's Stone Soup comic strip and the resources below as an extension to FOSS, teachers can enrich student critical thinking, science learning, research skills, decision-making and conveying concepts and ideas through visualizations.