Bringing Arctic Field Work to Students

This blog was written by Eleanor Kemp. Kemp has been a science teacher since 2001, and she currently teaches middle school at Kenwood Academy in Chicago.

Back in January, when I found out that I would be heading to the Toolik Field Station in the Alaskan Arctic, I really had no idea what to expect. How would I contribute to the research National Geographic Explorer Amanda Koltz, a PhD candidate at Duke University,  was doing with wolf spiders and the soil food web? More importantly, how would I bring what I learned back to my students in Chicago? The real excitement for me in coming here is not just what I will learn, but how I can expand my student’s horizons through my own experiences.

The first step in getting my students to understand Amanda’s project was to get them to comprehend permafrost and its role in the carbon cycle.  Since permafrost remains frozen for 2 or more years, it inhibits decomposition, causing soils in the Arctic to act as one giant carbon reservoir.  Most scientists agree that the permafrost is beginning to thaw at an accelerated rate, making the frozen dead and decaying matter stored in permafrost soils available for decomposition.  All of that stored carbon in the frozen vegetation has the potential to be released back into the atmosphere through the respiration of the microbial decomposers.

So how does Amanda’s research relate to this permafrost?  The wolf spider, a generalist predator in the tundra soil ecosystem, preys upon detritivores, which are small invertebrates that eat the microbial decomposers. Amanda is interested in the complex soil dynamics of this below ground food web, primarily how the food web is influenced by the presence of the wolf spider.

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Amanda Koltz takes soil sample from a spider plot while Kemp records data.
Photograph by Eleanor Kemp

Her basic question may have begun with, “what are spiders eating and where do they fit in to this permafrost soil food web?” But as she has spent several years here, she has developed other questions that are closely tied to climate change.  She has simulated warming by covering some of her spider plots with plastic sheeting to see if spiders are more active and are reproducing at a greater rate in warmer temperatures.  On a typical day, you will find us visiting these different treatment plots to assess spider densities.  On other days, we collect spiders via “pitfall” traps, which are small cups buried in the soil that the insects fall into to preserve them for research and analysis.

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Standard Berlese funnel set up. The soil sample is placed underneath the lamp on top of a screen in the funnel.
Photograph by Eleanor Kemp

During my final week here in the tundra, Amanda collected the most important piece of her data – the soil samples from each of the tundra plots.  This is where Amanda will get to see exactly what is living in the soil, and how the various treatments (warming, # of spiders) has influenced the below ground community.  The soils are dried in a Berlese funnel and the soil organisms are collected in small containers of ethanol for analysis under the microscope.

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Kemp sets pitfall traps on the tundra.
Photograph by Eleanor Kemp

When I think about what I want to bring back to my students, it is this last data collection of Amanda’s experiment that I think is the most applicable and interesting to my students.  As I teach in an urban area, I don’t think my students give any thought to what creatures are living beneath their feet.  Creating pitfall traps around my school is easy, as is the Berlese funnel set up (all that is required is a heat lamp, some cheesecloth, a funnel, a bucket and a specimen cup with ethanol).  The quality of my microscopes might not be as high-tech as Amanda’s, but the students will still be able to see some of these same small organisms living in the soil of Chicago – and that’s what really matters: opening their eyes to the world around them.   It is my hope that this experience will teach my students that what we are doing here in the Arctic is also occurring in their backyard, and that if they continue to ask questions and seek out answers, they may just end up a National Geographic Explorer like Amanda.

Learn More about Eleanor, and follow her journey here: http://www.polartrec.com/expeditions/predatory-spiders-in-the-arctic-food-web-2013.

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