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Aerobic and Anaerobic Microbe Analysis in a Subarctic Setting

Don Peterson


Students investigate the relationships between protozoa, algae and monera in freshwater, shoreline soil, and reindeer rumen. An open-ended approach, coupled with digitizing capabilities and "publication" of reports, allows students to develop a much deeper understanding of the many relationships represented in aerobic and anaerobic microbiology.

Activity Type:

  • Hands-on
  • Inquiry Lab
  • Authentic Assessment
  • Group/Cooperative Learning
  • Community Outreach/Off-Site Activity

Target Audience:

  • Biology
  • Life Science
  • Biotechnology

Background Information:

  • Basic understanding of bacteria, algae, protozoa
  • Basic understanding of habitat parameters
  • Basic skills in microscopy, digital imaging
  • Coordination of multiple individuals/agencies
  • Access to watercraft (Optional, but highly advantageous)

This activity involved a challenge issued to biotechnology students to complete an in-depth analysis of freshwater microbes (monera, algae, protozoa) from two separate microhabitats in a 12 acre eutrophic lake located near West Valley High School in Fairbanks, Alaska. 117 students participated via canoes on loan from local businesses (complete with PFDs!) and were chaperoned by professors from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, business people, administration, and parents.

Groups developed their specific methods to be utilized in meeting the challenge. Aquatic and shoreline samples were returned to the laboratory for analysis via digital and video microscopy utilizing CCD microvideo cameras, AV-capable computers, VHS recorders, and 35 mm photography. Multigradient Winogradsky columns were constructed from the mud samples for future analysis.

Classification, ecological relationships of monera, algae, and protozoa and development of technical writing skills were emphasized in reports. The reports were complete with digitized microbe images (still and/or motion), digital photographs of the developed sampling methods and microhabitats, and/or images recorded via VHS. The product was a report, via computer hard copy, computer presentation programs or VHS recording, which was "publisher-ready" and presented to classmates.

Anaerobic protozoa resident in reindeer and muskox rumen, obtained on-site from a fistulated reindeer at the University of Alaska's Large Animal Research Station, were studied as follow-up for comparison and contrast.

Microbiology academic content, environmental awareness in an "honest" versus a "contrived" setting, introduction and bonding of new classmates via an exciting activity in an outdoors setting, inclusion of a wide range of public and private individuals and outlooks, enhancement of existing computing skills, introduction to new technologies, and development of science methodology were some of the main reasons for the success of this project.

This project actively involved each student. As each team developed its individual procedures, the skills and expertise each student brought to the cooperative effort became important. Outdoor skills, mechanical aptitude, analytical thinking, organizational skills, problem-solving prowess, biological and physical science academic background, computing and technology expertise, and command of technical writing skills became important to the success of the mission. Each student was able to fill a vital niche in the effort due to varying and unique backgrounds and motivation.

Several students developed independent research projects as a result of this activity, resulting in high placings in both the Alaska High School Symposium and the Alaska Science and Engineering Fair.

An example of the interest generated by this method was the analysis of soil microbes completed by Lia Zito, a senior at West Valley High School, who built an excellent Winogradsky column with mud obtained during the field trip. By carefully monitoring the carbon, sulfur, calcium and oxygen gradients created in the plastic column, she was able to clearly demonstrate species delineation based on the nutrient concentrations. Sampling through the plastic column by using a hypodermic syringe, she was able to digitize representative species images. Lia was awarded first place in her category in the Alaska Science and Engineering Fair and was recognized by several private and governmental agencies for her research.

As another example of the power of open-ended investigation, Karen Hills, also a senior at West Valley High School, was selected to represent Alaska at the International Science and Engineering Fair with her investigation involving the relationships between Matilda's (the fistulated reindeer) feeding patterns and protozoa present in the reindeer gut. Her particular extension of the activity involved the suspension of six different selected forage species commonly utilized by reindeer. Digestibility was determined by comparing dry mass of the forage before and after twelve hour suspensions in the fistulated reindeer. Samples of rumen were analyzed concurrently to detect changes in the protozoa populations.

A number of reports and digitized images were also forwarded electronically to MICROCOSMOS, a national organization promoting microbiology education; student-produced video tapes were also forwarded as fistulated reindeer and muskox are rather rare in the "Lower 48!" Students are eager to share successes and failures encountered; initial contact can be accomplished through me at the following addresses:

Don Peterson
West Valley High School
Biology/Biotechnology Program
3800 Geist Road
Fairbanks, Alaska 99709
(907) 479-2261x172


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