It’s been a couple weeks since we parted ways with the tightly knit cohort of Students Discover teacher-scientists. After three weeks of intense training at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, these 12 middle school teachers are ready to make history engaging their students in real scientific research. Three teachers teamed with a researcher from each of four labs in the Nature Research Center to develop a research question that students in their classrooms will help to answer.
In its vision, Students Discover does not lack in grandeur—teachers and museum researchers are working together on the breadth of life. From the beginnings of the Earth nearly 4.6 billion years ago all life arose…slowly. More specifically, it took about 1.1 billion years from our planet’s humble beginnings before the first life evolved.
The first bacteria evolved 3.5 billion years ago, followed by the separation between plants and the common ancestor of animals and fungi 2 billion years ago. Animals and fungi split some time around 900 million years ago. Subjects from each of these ancient divisions are being studied as part of the Students Discover project. The Muddy Microbes team is exploring the intertwined relationships between the beneficial bacteria and fungi that live in the soil surrounding a common weed, the dandelion.
Invertebrates (all animals spineless but no less brave) diverged from the rest of us about 600 million years ago. At that point in the history of life, small creatures looking a bit like fish and a bit like leeches began to develop support along their back together with a handful of other features that led to sharks (450 million years ago), dinosaurs and mammals (230 million years). The Shark Teeth Forensics team is examining the formation of an extremely rich deposit of oceanic fossils containing the teeth of sharks that lived between 5 and 10 million years ago. The eMammal Camera Trap Stakeout team is studying the evolutionary legacy of mammals by using camera traps to observe the fuzzy critters that wander around our homes and schools when you aren’t watching.
Finally, 350 million years ago (it seems like just yesterday) the lineages leading to ants and face mites, our two favorite arthropods, separated from each other. Teachers and students around the world are capturing this long evolutionary legacy by using cookie crumbs and other food baits to study ants in the School of Ants and Ant Picnic projects. Contrary to their conspicuous social relative, tiny mites live inside the pores on our faces and are observed by the Meet Your Mites team with less delicious methods (although some might consider their sampling methods to be somewhat like getting a facial). Nonetheless an animal that started living on mammals as early as 200 million years ago is almost unknown to us, and the Meet Your Mite team is working to put a face on our invertebrate BFFs.
Through Students Discover, collaborative teams led by teacher-scientists are collecting data about a diverse array of organisms, reflecting evolutionary relationships whose origins start billions of years ago.
Terry “Bucky” Gates is a researcher at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and leader of the Shark Teeth Forensics team for Students Discover. His research lies at the intersection of paleobiology and modern ecology. He uses field and evolutionary comparative methods to better understand the evolution and preservation of ancient ecosystems. Follow him on Twitter @terryagates.