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Workforce development: Microplastics research finds new life with after-school program in South Carolina

By Susannah Sheldon, South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium

Microplastic particles showing up in the tissue of marine creatures is a frightening concept. Elementary school students creating Halloween masks in an after-school program is pure fun. Combine the two, and you get a couple of the many ways the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium builds a future workforce.

Since 2010, the Consortium has supported 85 undergraduate and 157 graduate students through various research projects. While the research itself is important, an underlying goal is to help educate and equip students to be able to take on the long-term challenges of fostering the environmental and economic sustainability of South Carolina’s coastal resources once they are ready to enter the workforce.

One of those Consortium-funded projects, led by researchers at Clemson University and The Citadel, is focused on microplastic particles that enter the marine environment during the breakdown of plastic litter and the release of common household products into wastewater systems. Sarah Au, a graduate research assistant in Clemson’s Institute of Environmental Toxicology, worked with Clemson researcher Stephen Klaine on a study which found that microplastic fiber exposure affects the growth, reproduction and survivorship of the freshwater amphipod Hyalella azteca.

In addition to her field and lab work, Au worked with fellow students in Clemson’s Graduate Program of Environmental Toxicology to tailor an existing high school What’s in Our Waters (WOW) project for elementary school children in after-school programs. The WOW, Jr. program was presented twice a week for two hours during an eight-week period to approximately 30 students in the third through fifth grades at Central Elementary School, in Pickens County, South Carolina.

Clemson’s microplastics research served as the foundation for the educational effort. The graduate students introduced complex scientific concepts such as contaminant transport, and they discussed how products that seem harmless can affect the health of estuarine invertebrates and fish.

Each week, a new theme was designed to teach environmental toxicology concepts through demonstrations, art activities and games. The first day involved an interactive lecture, where students were presented with new terms. The second day featured an experiment that applied what was taught on the first day, and a game if time allowed. For example, the students made masks of marine organisms during the week of Halloween, while learning about the dangers those organisms face due to different pollutants.

As a future workforce builder, the WOW Jr. program works on multiple levels. The graduate students learn how to boil down their lab work to the basics, which will be a skill set important whether they go on to careers in teaching or research.

“Learning how to interact with younger students allows me to think about my research goals in different ways,” Au says. “Learning how to communicate with individuals of different background experiences has been one of the best skills attained through participating in programs such as WOW Jr.

By using hand-on activities to promote inquiry and curiosity among elementary school students, the program also serves as an incubator for future researchers. Educators say youngsters should be exposed to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math pipeline as early as the kindergarten years.

WOW Jr. “gave us a chance to help students further understand why climate change and pollution present a challenge on a grander scale,” Au says. “Students are always presented with a problem, but not always given ways where they can make a difference. We tried to provide ways where they can make small changes every day.”

And hopefully prepare them for a future in the 21st-century workforce.



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