Byline: Sandi Kahn Shelton
Jul. 2--NEW HAVEN -- Like most high school sophomores, Danielle Moffett of Ansonia never gave much thought to the plight of wood frogs in the wild. But all that has changed. Moffett, who attends the Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, was chosen this year to participate in an after-school program at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, in which she and 56 other kids got to think hard about wood frogs and their environment.
The program, called EVOLUTIONS, which stands for EVOking Learning & Understanding Through Investigations Of the Natural Sciences, took high school students out of the classroom and had them tramping around through Yale Myers Forest, collecting samples and observing wildlife up close, says Jamie Alonzo, coordinator of education and special projects for the museum.
The students, who came from six area high schools, were working with Yale professor David Skelly, from the School of Forestry, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, whose work involves patterns of animal distribution. Skelly was interested in having the students develop experiments that determined how wood frog tadpoles would be affected by certain environmental conditions, such as temperature and pH, as well as increases in food, fertilizer and road salt in their vicinity.
Moffett's experiment involved increasing the acidity of the environment to see how tadpoles would survive.
The short answer: "The tadpoles didn't like the higher pH," she says.
The result of the students' work is an exhibit on the third floor of the Peabody, which includes a video of their experiments and results, as well as a terrarium that mimics a local vernal pool, including several species of amphibians and insects. Alonzo, who coordinates the program, says the program has been a great success. "It gives kids who are motivated a chance to see real science taking place," he says. "We drove them all the way to Myers Forest, which is in a different part of the state, and by the time we were an hour out of New Haven, some of the kids were farther away from home than they'd been before. They were looking at the woods and talking about bears and serial killers. It was a big deal to them."
Alonzo says the students were impressed with their responsibility. They caught frogs and trudged through the mud wearing waders. They saw snakes and lizards.
"One kid told me at the end of the day that he had so much fun that he would pay money to do this at an amusement park, if such a thing were possible," says Alonzo.
Once the students had their eggs, they were given laboratory space in which to conduct the experiments.
"Dr. Skelly came and talked to us, and he said he wanted us to think of conditions that could actually happen to the tadpoles," said Moffett. "You know, tadpoles could suddenly have rock salt washing off the road and into their habitats. We wanted to measure what would happen to them."
The program is sponsored by grants from the National Science Foundation and United Illuminating, and was created at the Peabody Museum. Its purpose is to promote literacy and career awareness in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and give kids an opportunity to visit colleges and learn about possible careers.
Moffett says it gets kids excited about science, too. "I never had a chance to do a lot of extra-curricular activities," she says. "And I still don't think of myself as wanting a career in science just because I want to become an illustrator. But being in this program has led me to a summer internship at Southern, and I'm getting interested in a lot more things I never thought about."
Alonzo says that the program has led to a gift from the H.A. Vance Foundation and more funding from the NSF to provide paid internship opportunities for about 32 EVOLUTIONS students over the next year, working with Yale faculty on everything from nano-imprinting to DNA extraction techniques.
Best of all, he says, there are no specific academic or grade requirements for students to be considered for the program. "It's a rather thick application, so it's almost a self-selected process," he says.
He stops and smiles. "I wish there had been something like this when I was in high school."
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